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1. Simple lines

Suppose you read the following brief poem about eros:

“I don’t know what I should do: two states of mind in me … (36)
I’m in love! I‘m not in love!
I’m crazy! I’m not crazy!

Suppose you reread it. Such simple few lines composed with such few simple words. What would you tend immediately to think? Would this be a candidate for a Daily Deviation here at dA? It seems to me not, for a multiplicity of reasons. I believe dA is at times too sophisticated. I tend to think most of us would smilingly frown upon it; it sounds too juvenile. Perhaps we would even tend to feel a tad of sarcastic sympathy within, we might even mock the words a bit. We laugh a bit at them; though perhaps the joke is, as we shall see, on us. When one is not in love, irony towards the other rules; yet, when in love, such irony is the least of our concerns.

But back to this simple poem. We already know so much about love and the erotic that we might in fact fail to see, to touch, to smell, to conceptualize. More philosophically, we modern westerners tend to think we have truly liberated human sexuality to its fullest expression. But this might just be simply a dangerous illusion as Michel Foucault dramatically points out in the first volume of his powerful The History of Sexuality. Although he is one of the strongest defenders of postmodernism —-a movement which criticizes the tyranny of modern reason—— there Foucault radically criticizes the connection between modern sexual liberation and the false sense of overall liberation we assume we have reached from the deeper western roots found in our confessional practices.

But back to the poem. Does it not seem altogether naïve? These words seem more a youthful description than a poem; they merely recount a very personal moment which most of us keep to ourselves. But let us not be so quick to dismiss it; maybe its apparent simplicity demands of us an effort which goes unnoticed at the start. Line-art, as I have argued elsewhere, does so similarly. What, then, does this naïve poem demand? That we situate ourselves in the time of the lover who loves; that time is the now of our existence. To remember a love is not be in love. To demand a love to the future is not to love fully. We humans can only fall in love in the now, we can only love in the present presence of the now. But we ALL know this; so, what makes this poem so special? Why tell us about it? If I had written it, I would probably not have much to say. But here is the thing, it was written by a lover, perhaps the greatest woman lover of them all. These simplistic words were written by Sappho, one of the greatest poets in human history. Courageously, she has marked down these dramatic words to posterity so that we can situate ourselves in the “now” of the erotic. But besides, all her words carry an erotic charge which has not dissipated over the centuries. In her poetic lines she confronts us and reminds us of the complex nature of erotic life as expressed in our deepest longings and complex desires as humans.

But let us go back to the poem. Why then is this poem so famous if it is so elusively naïve, even premature and incomplete? Therein precisely lies its force. Its simplicity deludes us into thinking that no complexity is there to be found. Its simplicity masks purposely. This journal tries to investigate this simplicity. It briefly seeks to investigate some of the many questions regarding erotic desire and its puzzles as seen by Sappho. One could even go so far as to say that this type of exercise is required in order to deepen the discussion on sexuality in our societies. We constantly hear that we, as a society, have failed in our own erotic education. I truly believe we have failed and will fail, unless we take seriously the task of understanding desire beyond the technical and biological aspects we emphasize as moderns. That type of technical education and practice speaks thus: your sexual organs are such and such; they are located here and here; you put this there; you put this on like so; if you touch here, then ; have any problems? Take this… …. ; and so on.

Instead of defending such crass reduction, an investigation on the metaphors of erotic love becomes central to understanding ourselves; even to deciding what type of life we choose to live. For the questions around the erotic involve a choice of life. Such an investigation will touch on Sappho here as one of the representatives of the views of eros as defended by artists. But this investigation requires a much deeper understanding of the challenge to artists set forth by Plato’s and Aristotle’s combined understandings of desire. Art and philosophy are THE privileged avenues to desire. Exploring them both, opens us to ourselves in a broader, less illusory fashion. Women like Martha Nussbaum lead the way here with her important The Fragility of Goodness. But perhaps the tension between both areas will eventually lead us to defend and, actually live, altogether different erotic lives.

Shaken by coming to recognize that what we thought was an irrelevant poem, we want to take another chance with it. Don’t we also sometimes want to take another chance with an unforgettable lover? We want to let ourselves be opened by the poem, Sappho wishes to open us and close us repetitively, teaching us the motions of our desiring natures. We must be ready to open ourselves and close ourselves in the rhythm of her “simple” words. For her, we must be ready to love as lovers do. For her we must be ready to risk.

2. Deceptive simplicity

So let us return to these opening lines which we now know have a poetic backing like few others. The poem, once again, reads:

“I don’t know what I should do: two states of mind in me …
I’m in love! I‘m not in love
I’m crazy! I’m not crazy!”

First she tells us, “I do not know what I should do.” Don’t you remember this? You might answer, “Yes, I do.” But unfortunately, I must tell you that, strictly speaking, you cannot.. “Why? What do you mean?”, you protest. Part of the reason is this: if you CAN remember, then you are NOT in love in this moment. For in love, says Sappho in this poem, you just do not know anymore! Perhaps this is why we can never quite remember how badly it went previously the last time we loved, when we ACTUALLY fall in love again NOW. Repetitive loses accumulate as we cannot grasp what is going on each time.

And moreover, if in fact you CAN remember having felt this, then —-really, really—- you don’t remember. What you are trying to say just means, most probably, that you are now in love. Only in being in love do these words touch you as they should, for in love you are no longer yourself. As Sappho says, in love you do not know what you should do. And if you think you do, Sappho thinks you might just be deluding yourself.

Or in other words, of course, when we are NOT in love, or when we think we are assured the love of another —–which is a very odd thing to think/desire— we simply shrug our shoulders when faced with such “immature” poetic words. “Yeah I know, I remember when I fell in love”, you say to yourself. But in doing so you confuse what you ONCE felt in the PAST with what it is ACTUALLY to be IN love NOW. By projecting the “then” of love into the present moment, you certainly feel secure. This is the characteristic of the worst of lovers, says Plato in his beautiful Phaedrus. Plato finds this tyrannical type of love exemplified in the story of King Midas. Everyone knows his story; he tried to control the temporality of love, and failed.

In seeking such security, the indecision of Sappho’s poem seems juvenile and unworthy. But, “not to know”; do you remember how this felt so as to liberate YOU to the full presence of the present instant of loving now? Stricken by the other’s enigmatic presence, Sappho allows us —or better yet, makes us— feel what this presence does to us through her words. What occurs in the “now” of the erotic according to Sappho?

In the appearance of the erotic other, I lose all possibility of thoughtful presence. This Sappho affirms. Little wonder we mock those in love; we humor ourselves through their lost capacities. This is nowhere more poignantly revealed than in The Damask Drum, a must read for anyone interested in erotic desire. This is a short play by Japanese writer Yukio Mishima in which a poor and old janitor named Iwakichi, claims to fall in love with a 20 year old beauty called Kayoko. The perplexing dynamic of their affair reveals much about the way we mock those who lose themselves in love. But be that as it may, we have ALL at one time or another actually mocked those in love. For, you see, they truly seem out of their wits! They actually seem irresponsive, as in a dream. They are slow to reaction and for this we taunt them. They can’t even keep in their saliva at times! Even their bodily functions are a total loss!

“Not knowing” in that moment of the erotic encounter; to be simply grabbed by the force of a presence which remains even when not there. The absence of the loved one does not mitigate in the least the feeling. And worse yet, “not knowing” carries with it crucial problems in real life. “Not knowing” ourselves, ceasing to be who we thought we were, our actions cease to be coherent. For responsible actions require some kind of identity that affirms such decisions. No wonder lovers are irresponsible! The planned coherence once available to answer the question “ who am I?” evades us in this instance. We are paralyzed as rarely we are. This is why Saphho adds that her not knowing involves primarily not knowing what I should do. Once you know what you should do, you have lost contact with Sappho’s poem. Perhaps you seek such security, but ironically such security erases the moment which held the erotic tension in its extreme possibility. You get back to the security of yourself, but perhaps this is precisely the way to lose yourself.

But this is odd, isn’t it? How come you do not know what you should do? Well, we feel like saying to the lover, “Just kiss him or decide not to kiss him. Or send him a denial. Just get it over with”, we are frequently advised by friends. But that, precisely, is NOT the point. In contrast, Sappho asks us to remain in the presence of the moment in which the other comes into our view as a lover we desire intensely. But to remain there, this is almost impossible in our first loves, for powerful enigmatic forces override us, as we shall see. Perhaps in reading and understanding Sappho, other more enticing possibilities might appear for us.

But remaining in that privileged instant, we are —- paradoxically— conscious we no longer are fully conscious of ourselves. I do not know what to do in that moment which many seek to avoid, to forget. To this we shall return. For captivated by it, we can no longer do anything as we did. In a sense, I know I should, but I can’t; in another sense, I know I shouldn’t’ but I find that can and I will. And a question arises; is Sappho speaking here of the moral limitations of social life? Not in the least. That is not her concern here. Her point, instead, is that eros is a kind of assault; we tremble, we feel uneasy, and yet –paradoxically—we desire to feel so. Eros pushes us besides ourselves, and in doing so we, says Sappho, risk our very own personal and uniquely created identity.

This is confirmed by the simple words that follow. The expression of this enigmatic and unexpected entrance brings about severe division and fragmentation. He who was once one, has NOW become two. Knowing yourself divided, a fall of consciousness that both opens the world to new possibilities, but risks the very foundations of who we have become. Sappho adds in the poem, as if to validate our previous words:

“I’m in love! I’m not in love!
I’m crazy! I’m not crazy!”

To be crazy is to lose it, to lose one’s wits; to remain in the realm of the metaphoric as against the unerotic realism of the everyday real. What we have suspected above is revealed as true. Knowing she cannot act, she nonetheless begins by accepting this rupture and division. The penalty of not being ruptured lies in the constant immersion in the ordinary world of constant personal presence. Many of us live, prefer to live, without such disruptions all our lives. We can actually BE with another and yet not love as Sappho claims we should. But some of us chose not to live so. Such are true artists, such are true philosophers. Instead of the safety of the known, the artistic lover embarks in another type of self-affirmation which might end badly for her. The poetess knows it is unreasonable to do so, to “chose” to do so. That is why she cries out of two severed minds that she is in love and that she is not, that she is not crazy and that she is.

These words have the sound of a certain truth to them, they reveal the stance of the person who has fallen in love. To fall in love is indeed to fall; it is to become another who no longer is as he was. To be in love. To become two; to be unable to decide. In love we are and we cease to be. For we love and we long to be with another, and yet that other who beckons us makes us fear we will be utterly lost to ourselves. But without such erotic presence the loss might be double! Divided we stand as we long to be and not to be in front of her. How peaceful it was when time was not rushing forth in the now. How peaceful it is to simply remember as if one had once lived such a life and had gotten over it.

Emily Dickinson, also a woman, knew of this kind of love. In her No. 18 she points out to the very same dilemma of internal division and strife:

“Heart! We will forget him!
You and I —- tonight!
You may forget the warmth he gave —
I will forget the light!

When you have done, pray tell me
That I may straight begin!
Haste! Lest while you’re lagging
I remember him.”

Of course, Dickinson speaks once the affair has come to the painful realization of the final loss. Sappho cannot accept this. It is for her, in a sense, a kind of cheating. Instead, Sappho asks us to remain in the now of the moment in which the touch of the other’s caress reaches us and we are paralyzed physically, conceptually and metaphorically. This journal stems from such decisions in my life.

No wonder Sappho’s words endure in their utmost simplicity as the barest –in the sense of most naked— expressions of the erotic instant. Erotic desire as unnamable cannot be named in too many lines; Sappho reminds us of this. Her courage lies in not being capable of denial. Her courage lies in opening herself, and ourselves, with her erotically charged words to the presence of eros in our lives. If ever there was a force that could make us transform our settled dispositions, here we have found it at last. And how we yearn for such change, we artists and philosophers.

3. Erotic assault

Romanticism as an artistic movement saw nature as somehow intimately connected to our most basic human desires. It was in and through nature that we found the most complete fulfillment available to us as natural human beings. For the romantics we sought nature to become whole once again, to overcome the temporary division which separates us as humans from the rest of the natural world; even to overcome the divisions within ourselves between reason and feeling, between thought and creative expression. In a sense a contemporary and dramatic portrayal of this dream is the stunning documentary The Grizzly Man in which a young man seeks to become one with the bears of Alaska. Of course, there are different types of romantic positions available; from the naïve kind found in Goethe’s Werther, moving to more complex ones such as the one found in Wordsworth magically healing poetry. To repeat, to bridge the gap between us humans and the natural becomes the cornerstone of their position. (See Taylor’s Sources of the Self)

But Sappho thinks otherwise. Sappho’s poetry reveals , continuously, its non-romantic character and foundation. This is, I believe, why it touches us so deeply as moderns living a disenchanted world. Seeking a certain type of erotic fusion with the world and the other is something she believes is unavailable to us. Sappho, instead, focuses seriously —–makes us focus seriously—- on the real nature of desire as we experience it as the embodied beings we are. This stance is powerfully revealed by Sappho in her vision of eros as a woman caught in the grasp of love. In this respect, perhaps one of the most anti-romantic poems ever written on the nature of erotic desire is the following:

”Eros once again limb-loosener whirls me
Sweetbitter, impossible to fight off, creature stealing up”

We have already encountered Sappho’s simplicity of word. And, as it clearly stands out, she remains firm to her decision. My own line-art has been deeply influenced by her. But once again, this simplicity is truly deceptive. We desire an encounter, an encounter with Sappho’s simplicity. But we must not be blinded into believing that simplicity obscures complexity. Rather, it might just be that in simplicity lies the most complex of all affairs. For don’t we ourselves sense how simple it was to fall in love? And yet, don’t we acknowledge much later the complexity of what we did not see in the beginning?

How does Sappho express erotic desire in this famous poem? Sappho answers with great awareness. Against our romantic notions of eros —–the lovers who hold each other dreamily in a kind of oblivion of each (e.g. Tristan und Isolde)—- Sappho speaks as a mature human does. First, what strikes one immediately is that for her Eros is not at all chosen. Instead, she claims that eros is a creature which steals up; as if in ambush, as if unseen. Eros, a predator. The mystery of eros cannot be controlled from within for it is an unexpected appearance from the outside, a sort of reptilian assault which steals up towards us. Eros is an external force we cannot will, just as one cannot will either birth or death.

Secondly, instead of a gentle touch, she demands of us to recognize things as they are. Eros is a limb-loosener, not in the first instance a limb-generator. Eros whirls and twirls. It has hurricane forces to it. As it appears from hiding, no rectitude remains. No assured rigidity can face up to its overwhelming presence. And, as we saw above, it cares little for the powers of assured identity. In contrast, as if in a kind of protest, Sappho knows of her body’s loosing itself; for we do indeed tremble when in the presence of the lover (even if through a computer!) Each and every single limb comes apart as the force of the external comes rushing though my bodily self-image. Sappho demands that we recognize that eros touches our body first, our minds only much later. To live erotically is to pay attention to the body that we as finite human are and will always be until our death. This is why in another poem she writes:

”Without warning

As a whirlwind
swoops on an oak
Love shakes my heart”.
(44, Barnard)

Eros without warning, impossible to fight off. Against it, no defenses. Or so it seems. But this is not altogether right. Of course, we ALL know we actually DO defend ourselves quite well. Even some of our modern marriages may try to become a kind of defense. But Sappho speaks not to those who claim such abilities, she speaks to the artists and artistically-minded humans who have the courage not to defend themselves from eros in irony, denial or multiple deflections. However, some of the consequences of such an open stance —–of the stance which sees something beyond the boring repetition of oneself in front of oneself—– may turn out to be dire. This is why in another short poem Sappho warns:

”Pain penetrates

Me drop
by drop”

Freud also knows of the strange enticement behind these words, as he shows in this studies on the phenomenon of sadomasochism.

But that is not all. We are not even close to the poem yet. We have barely felt its loosening power. We have barely opened ourselves to Sappho’s bodily words. This is revealed by looking more closely at the poem, just as we desire to look more closely at our lover. We become like the photographers of Sappho’s poetic lines. We photograph her, that is to say, we write her in the light of our own erotic understanding.

Magnification brings out a special word in the poem. The poem uses the Greek word <b>glukupikron</b> which is erroneously translated in English as “bittersweet”. But the order of Greek is quite different; it is the same order of the word in Spanish. No wonder Spanish culture is close to the erotic; full of serenades, and dance and such! For the Greek word literally translates “sweetbitter”, or as in Spanish, “dulceamargo”. But what is Sappho pointing out? She is struggling to point out the temporal ordering of desire. The sight of the beloved in the first instance is adequately perceived as bringing forth a certain desirable sweetness. Rarely do we think of our first loves as lemons, rarely do we play erotic games with acid limes. Usually we use chocolates, and sweet oranges and the like. Later, of course, that MAY change.

But, less literally, what could this word be pointing to? Primarily to the fact that the assault that whirls us around, is, in the first instance, not so intimidating. The first encounter is actually pleasant. Of course, if our loves have gone badly, then we tend to deny this first impression later on. However that may be —–and it is a VERY frequent and difficult issue— Sappho speaks primarily to those who, in opening themselves to themselves, are honest to themselves as regards their natural erotic capacities towards the pleasant. But alas, it is also true that lovers can DO what in another poem Sappho says is itself a chosen denial:

”But their heart turned cold and they dropt their wings.” (16)

But then again, for Sappho that was not erotic love at all primarily because eros is not chosen. .

And even when previous loves have failed, we cannot but feel the sweetness of a new encounter. We feel what Sappho speaks of, namely, that in love we sense we are never more alive, readier for challenges, readier to regain our health, readier even for certain types of battles and decisions. The world is another, it has become unrecognizable.

But there is still much more to this little simple poem. According to the powerful work of Anne Carson, the crucial aspect of this poem is a tiny Greek word which, when translated, comes out to mean “once again”. The word in Greek is deute. The fact that Sappho seems to have invented it speaks volumes of her poetic abilities and endurance. But what could such a little word hold? The word “deute” relates us to the temporality of eros. It is grammatically composed of two elements: “de” which means ‘once’ thus signaling to the unequivocally non-repeatable present moment of the erotic encounter. “De” signals vibrantly the now of desire.

The second composite part of “deute” is the word “aute” which turns out to mean “again”. In contrast, it points to the temporal repetition of desires which have come and gone throughout our lives. “Now” we feel the presence of Eros, but Sappho in her maturity recalls that this newness was there before and was somehow “conveniently” forgotten. To this we shall return below. But that would not be fair; for if we remember well, Sappho’s erotic assault is NOT up to us! It just isn’t! So in this combined magical word “deute” the temporal nature of desire springs forth. In it, intertwined, we encounter the “now “ that we are facing in this instant as we look at her eyes (or messages if on the internet!), but this now is traversed “again” by the repetition of the many already felt assaults which have come previously in a similar fashion. To put it simply one could say, this poem reveals how this “now” is traversed by the “thens” of love. (Carson, 165) Pulled within the now, we actually feel in love. Pulled apart by the “thens”, we feel the craziness of the whole thing. And yet we let ourselves fall in the now. For Sappho, herein lies our humanity.

Much more could be said about the attempt to control the temporal nature of desire. To those interested in these issues Plato’s Phaedrus is a must read. Just recall King Midas. But here I would like to focus on what is meant by the now of erotic desire. So I will tell you a little story of mine. One of the main reasons I returned to Canada for a third time, was to see, feel and touch snow. To you this must seem incredible. But if you lived in the hot tropics you would never cease to be amazed by snow.

This whole absurd idea is perfectly captured by our amazing Gabriel Garcia Márquez in his deep and hilarious novel Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude). If ever you intend on living in a “developing” country, this is required reading. In his famous book, Gabo shares one of the amazing stories of José Arcadio Buendía. The book itself even begins with these incredible words which could barely be understood by an inhabitant of Northern latitudes:

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

Upon death, Aureliano remembers the sensation of ice. I, for my own part, remember the sensation of snow. Gabo tells us the whole story a little later in the novel. José Arcadio ——Aureliano’s father—– exclaims after seeing ice for the very first time in his life: “It is the largest diamond in the world.”(We smile thanks to Colombian humour.) Just to touch the ice, means José Arcadio must pay a big sum of money. But the sensation suddenly brought upon him, sheds light upon the memory his son Aureliano will carry forth until his death. Gabo tells us:

” and so he placed his hand over the ice, and held it there for several minutes, while his heart grew swollen with fear and jubilation in contact with the mystery.”

Ice, a mystery; snow a mystery. But what could this mystery be? What is the mystery of ice? What is the mystery of snow? It’s a mystery that is not totally decipherable. You must grab an ice cube and experience it for yourself. What you find yourself stunned by, is the feeling of holding on to the effacing. The more you press, the quicker it melts. The harder you wish to hold on, the quicker it ceases to be. You desire not to let go, and yet you know you must if you desire to feel this novel pleasure extended in time. You are torn between letting go —–thus freeing what you wish were only yours—- and holding on to what brings an indescribable and unknown pleasure, thus necessarily destroying it in the process.

We are reminded of some of our loves. This is why some have compared the sensation of holding ice in your hands to eros. One of those who knows of this mystery is Sophocles. In a poem he writes:

“This disease is an evil bound upon the day.
Here’s a comparison –not bad, I think:
when ice gleams in the open air,
children grab.
Ice-crystal in the hands is
at first a pleasure quite novel.
But there comes a point–
you can’t put the melting mass down,
you can’t keep holding it.
Desire is like that,
Pulling the lover to act and not to act,
again and again, pulling.”
(See Anne Carson.)

Holding ice in your hands, you become more aware of the temporal nature of desire. You come closer to knowing, and thus truly feeling, the always fleeting now of human desire. Understanding this becomes crucial in order to give life to healthier desires within our erotic relations. For we also wish to hold on to our loves in this troubling way. Much more could be said, but perhaps now you better understand why I wanted to return to Canada and see, and touch, and melt snow in my bare hands. And perhaps now you better understand when Sappho exclaims:

“I don’t know what I should do: two states of min in me …
I’m in love! I ‘m not in love
I’m crazy! I’m not crazy!

4. The metaphoric distance of our erotic lacks.

Simplicity, loss of identity, bittersweetness, the “now” and “thens” of eros; all mysteriously opened in the poetic words of Sappho. But even more stunningly, Sappho reveals the nature of our erotic longing in an unparalleled graphic poem. We ask: what precisely in us makes us desire what we have seen may lead to a deep destabilizing force in our lives? Sappho reveals that desire is moved negatively by the presence of a self-sustaining lack. In another very short poem Sappho adds to our previous considerations:

As a sweet apple turns red on a high branch
high on the highest branch and the applepickers
well, no they didn’t forget —were not able to reach.”

If desire moves us so deeply, it is perhaps because in part it reaches out to something we ourselves have not made part of our self-identity. We are not whole, but tend to desire some kind of wholeness; even desire an original wholeness previous to birth. Coming together sexually is perhaps the closest we may come to bridging this “physical” gap. This is brilliantly related by Aristophanes the comedian in the Symposium, perhaps another journal will provide the connections.

For what we do not lack seems not to move us in the least. If in fact we were completely self-sufficient, it seems our movements would cease; we would become something like strange bodiless gods. But we are far from such self-sufficiency, says Sappho. Science fiction does dream of bodiless existences, but even if it were so, Sappho would protest that such a life would not be a human life in the least. This sense of lack is then a powerful jump-starter, but a dangerous one as well. It does pull us out of ourselves, but it may do so primarily seeking its own fulfillment. Having my needs met by you —believing that this is possible— I fail to confront my needs which continue to go unnoticed within me. For perhaps in seeking not to face our lacks, we push them forth into others, specially and most dramatically into our lovers. We place in them the burden of our desire for original wholeness.

But how is all this connected to the poem at hand? Let us see. As we elevate our linguistic sight, we behold a very complete sweet apple turning on a high branch hanging above us. Focusing our eyes upon this apple we discover several things. First, and foremost, that we no longer see our surroundings. The tree which bears this apple has been lost to us, the other apples are no longer there to be seen. Is this not very much like the times we have become smitten by eros in our lives? Don’t we radically reduce our sight from a healthy wide-angled view to the most telescopic of lenses? Photographically speaking, we move from 10mm to about 600mm! Besides, we know Sappho has chosen an apple tree for obvious reasons. If indeed most of us westerners relate the apple to another myth, the myth of Adam and Eve, it is clear that for Sappho and the Greek lyrical poets in general, an apple is the metaphoric fruit of the beloved. Rather than the beginning of a sinful existence as in the Christian myth, it stands as the perplexing presence of an erotic longing which might make us fall as well, but in an altogether different sense. And even in our daily life we still correlate sweet apples with erotic desire; dA is full of such enticing photographs. Some photographs even portray this with no apple whatsoever!

Now, what was puzzling from the start, becomes even more so. If we were initially told that the sweet apple was on a high branch, we now are corrected by Sappho who stretches our sight almost beyond the visible. She tells us now that even the 600mm is not enough, we WILL need lens-extenders! Or so it seems. For this sweet self-sufficient, self-enclosed and silent apple is truly situated “high in the highest branch”! (For an amazing analysis of the Greek grammar which carries out this telescoping see Ann Carson). But how could we have been so mistaken! I mean, how could our eyes have not seen this coming? Perhaps they did not want to see, perhaps they saw what they wanted before them. And just like the ice we held, but somehow did not want to hold on to for it meant its dissolution, likewise we now look but do not want to look too hard for we might no longer have anything to look at!

Suddenly we are introduced to the true subjects of the poem: the apple-pickers who “specialize” in picking the beloveds of the world. Apple-pickers, men and women who seek out the fulfillment of their desires in another whose beauty primarily seems to appear as a sweetness which hides bitter possibilities. But what does Sappho herself tell us about them? First off, that they are many. Many, it seems, look up to the apple which awaits picking, many will have to “deck it out” for it. The whole thing is quite Darwinian! Secondly, that instead of picking —–which is what they are good at—- they instead are lost in the activity of seeing. As if charmed by the apple’s reddish presence, they have ceased any action. But this is not altogether true. Sappho tells us that what they have done is rather specific, they have decided to “forget”. We are told that in picking they have forgotten something altogether important. But what is it that they have forgotten? Their first action, was to pick, then they just stare, and now suspiciously they forget! And forgetting desire, how difficult a task that is according to Sappho! We continue reading and, fortunately, the poetess herself reveals it “all” to us. She clarifies the illusions behind the mysterious forgetting of the beloved.

Suddenly, as if pulling us back from the distance to the reality of the present, Sappho tells us that in reality the apple-pickers did not actually forget at all:

“well, no they didn’t forget —were not able to reach”.

What a stunning revelation of a conveniently comic decision! The sweet apple on the highest branch remains untouched by any of them; and yet, instead of recognizing their incapacity, they make a strategic move. They pretend to have not even seen it at all! For if they are indeed good apple-pickers, it would be to their detriment to have some apples actually escape into the freedom of their own erotic nature. So, just as we convince ourselves that the “now” of eros can be sidestepped, so these apple pickers convince themselves that they never saw anything! Faced with the desire to face their own lacks, they instead become forgetful of themselves so as to be able to desire this very same apple the morning after as they move around the orchard unchanged and truly unloved.

By thus moving us using this kind of photographic focusing of erotic desire, Sappho teaches us that the erotic lack we have as sexual beings pulls us outside ourselves into a distant reality. This erotic reality which hangs before us eludes us; we tend to deny it in disbelief as we approach it and learn, to our astonishment, that it continuously evades us. Lacking the apple we seek it, but if we actually came to possess it, the drive to jumpstart the search would be gone! And therefore, during the sleep of the night, these apple-pickers will convince themselves of events that did not occur. They will awaken the next morning to try to pick the sweet apple on the high branch, or rather, the sweet apple high on the highest branch. And they will forget once more, and they will begin anew the morning after. The apple, it seems, will never be reached, for in reaching it, we would cease to be humans altogether.

Perhaps Sappho allows us, through her poetry, to liberate our lacks into the honesty of their essential nature. In reading Sappho’s simple lines there might come a day in which we will not only not forget, but actually love the other as other for we will have come to know ourselves as lacking. And perhaps it is in a very similar way that we as artists relate ourselves to our own work. For we all know of the desire to create and yet somehow feel that once the work is created, once the apple has become real, the search for it is gone. And day by day we convince ourselves that there is a new apple we have not picked. It lies high in a high branch in a tree we can no longer see, and in this way we strive to give poetic word to those foundational lacks which conform us from the very start.

(A complete understanding of this dynamic would have to include several discussions of Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus, including their intimate discussions of wings and metaphors. Besides, a deeper understanding of the apple itself and its troubling intrinsic nature —–of this self-sufficient being which is the erotic beloved, which in modernity finds parallels in the idea of the “Lolita”—- in a sense requires readings such as Yukio Mishima’s stunning The Damask Drum, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Alba Lucia Angel’s Misia Señora and Gabriel Garcia Márquez latest book: Memoria de mis putas tristes, among many others.)

5. Erotic triangulation

Sometimes one should simply let a great poem speak for itself instead of pretending to understand it:

”He seems to me equal to gods that man
who opposite you
sits and listens close
to your sweet speaking

and lovely laughing — oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, a moment, then no speaking
is left in me

no: tongue breaks, and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
fills ears

and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead —or almost
I seem to me.”

(Do let me know if you have found the puzzle of triangulation within its mysterious lines. To be able to see it involves, among other things, learning to read erotically: http://amelo14.deviantart.com/journal/7266768/ )

6. Conclusion

Sappho’s poetry is perhaps the single most important poetic work on the nature of eros in a pre-Christian era. Not giving in to romanticism, she faces the mystery of erotic desire head on. Thoughtfully perceptive to desire’s perplexing dilemmas, she encourages us with her courage to feel the nakedness of those simple poetic lines in which she remains open as perhaps the most erotic lover of all. Her poems provide a certain mature self-sufficiency which nonetheless remains open to the living eroticism of those with whom we come into contact as we move through our lives. Or in other words, through her decisions the poem is liberated to its inmost energetic possibility which in turn may radiate into the possibility of loving oneself –—and perhaps another—–in the intimacy of the created and creating word.

However, me must conclude by pointing to at least two great challenges to this very powerful view of human desire. One is the view of eros as defended by Socrates and later on Aristotle guided by a reconsideration of desire and the connection between true friendship, another kind of self-sufficiency, and a happiness beyond the mere sense of a personal feeling. (See my journals on Socrates : a) http://amelo14.deviantart.com/journal/7640910/ and b) http://amelo14.deviantart.com/journal/7696872/ ) The second view is the view upheld by a believer; for instance the one defended by Christians and their notion of “agape” (love of God) as expressed profoundly in Augustine’s <b>Confessions</b>.

We artists might feel secure in our own islands, but Sappho’s poetry at least teaches that openness alone guarantees the possibility of avoiding self-delusion. It is this very same poetic honesty which may allow us to return to the beginning of erotic love:

“I don’t know what I should do: two states of mind in me … (36)
I’m in love! I‘m not in love!
I’m crazy! I’m not crazy!

I have been there. It does take much courage. It is rare.

(First published on the web on Feb 9, 2006 with accompanying art: http://www.amelo14.deviantart.com/journal/7838058/)

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On trees, deep ecology and poetry

1. Introduction

Most of us, if not all of us, have a particular fondness for and connection to living things. And since each of us is unique, we have greater connections to some living beings over others. This connection is very difficult to articulate. For example, some people have a fondness for dogs; still others for tarantulas. Dali was fond of flies, though most of us aren’t. I myself have always had a particular fondness for trees. I cannot tell you why exactly; I can only say that my adolescence was close to them. I was lucky, I got to know MANY diverse trees. But many other living beings were also close to me, and yet my fondness for trees stands out. This journal tries to articulate this connection.

But, fortunately, I am not the only one. Here at dA many people are fond of trees and flowers. One need only check out the photography category Nature to find thousands upon thousands of photographs being uploaded constantly. And I ask myself, what are all these deviants trying to say? Of course, not all such deviations are artistic, but they DO show that artists and non-artists have a strong and deep connection with the living.

But for some, it is poetry which is THE privileged art that opens this connection with the living more primordially than any other. This journal is also about this connection with poetry, with a poem that tells about our connection to trees. Once, one such poem came to me. It is a poem about trees. I am sorry, I must correct myself. It is a poem about A very unique tree. These are the opening lines of this poem entitled A Refuge of Nocturnal Birds:

“High on a cliff there’s a twisted pine;
intently it listens into the abyss
with its trunk curved down like a crossbow. ”

(Salvatore Quasimodo; Nobel Prize, 1959.)

Poetry uses such deceptively simple words! I mean, I am sure most of us know each and every single word just read. So much so, that we think we have understood these few lines. But then I wonder, why would Quasimodo receive the NOBEL prize if things are as simple as they appear? Surely there is a mystery brewing here. Perhaps our complex modern lives have made us a bit hasty. We know too much and rarely pause.

Instead, I propose we listen “intently” again to the poem as this peculiar pine listens intently to the abyss. But this is not easy; for I am not sure if our capacity to listen is at its best. How could we listen being surrounded, as we are, by so much noise pollution? How could we listen if we are always talking? Have we forgotten to listen in our hectic age?

But much more importantly, and these are the VERY difficult questions which guide this journal: if indeed we CAN listen to the world of living things —–if we can listen to their Being— what would it mean to be able to listen TO them? I mean something not too complex. I mean, in part, this; the latest I heard, trees just DO NOT speak. Or, more to the point, how exactly can a poem speak for trees in an age in which trees are becoming extinct because of our technological encroachment? How can we humans –specially artists and philosophers— let trees speak? Or, can/should we just shed our technological understanding of the world, an understanding in which trees have lost their symbolic enchantment? How, indeed, to let them speak without Imposing our anthropocentric voice unto them?

This journal attempts to be a very incomplete preparation towards new types of encounters. Mainly, it is shared so that together we can listen more clearly to our fondness for trees and other living beings. But like the twisted pine in Quasimodo’s poem, before getting to the poem itself, we must —unfortunately— make some preparatory twists.

2. A puzzle

The previous questions carry with them a very perplexing puzzle; it is a puzzle which is of particular interest to us modern Westerners for we alone have brought about the demise of a mythological understanding of the universe and the beings which inhabit it. To this we shall return; but for now, how to express better this puzzle which I feel so intensely?

In one of the most beautiful Platonic dialogues –—the Phaedrus, which deals with erotic discourse— Socrates says something altogether puzzling to us moderns. Phaedrus teases Socrates by telling him that he rarely leaves the city of Athens for the countryside. In the countryside Socrates seems to be totally lost. Socrates seems to not be much of a hiker, as we modern city dwellers in our polluted cities have become. To this teasing, Socrates responds:

Forgive me, best of men. For I am a lover of learning (philomathes). Now then, the country places and the trees are not willing to teach me anything, but the human beings in town are. But you ….” (230d; Translated by James H. Nichols; Ithaca, Cornell University, 1998) ” (on the web a lesser translation, see:

(In this regard see the striking lack of reference by Xenophon’s Memorabilia (Ithaca, Cornell University, 1994) to Socrates’ studies in natural philosophy, a silence which points to the puzzling relation, to say the least, between “natural philosophy” and “political philosophy”.)

Socrates is of the city, rather than of the countryside. What could Socrates be getting at? But, is this true? Don’t we have anything to learn from trees? Isn’t Socrates absolutely wrong here? We might think about this possibility: Socrates just simply did not foresee an age in which the very existence of the Earth would come into play because of the powers we have harnessed as humans caught in our technological grids. Of course, Socrates knew VERY WELL the Greeks could destroy themselves. But for US humans to destroy the Earth, that, I think, was a situation Socrates could not have foreseen.

And yet, might not there be some truth to Socrates’ important point? To see what might be behind his point just consider a very simple question once again: when was the last time you actually spoke to a tree, and it actually answered back? By the same token, recall the opening lines of the poem above. The tree in Quasimodo‘s poem is NOT the tree which I see through my window. I bet you, the tree outside does not actually listen to anything, for it just does not have ears! So after all, it seems, Socrates has a point. Trees cannot teach us much. But, is this true?

It is this ambivalent questioning which moves me to try to listen more carefully to what trees might say to us humans in an age in which trees are continuously fallen and seen as standing reserve ready to be cut, rather than as the wilderness of which we are an integral part. This is why, in contrast to Socrates’ words, I must let you listen to Tolkien’s words. In particular, we listen with deep gratitude to how Pippin tried to describe his encounter with the Ents, the oldest inhabitants of Tolkien’s symbolically rich world:

“One felt as if there was an enormous well behind them, filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking, but their surface was sparkling with the present; like sun shimmering on the outer leagues of a vast tree, or on the ripples of a very deep lake. I don’t know but it felt as if something that grew in the ground –asleep, you might say, or just feeling itself as something between root-tip and leaf-tip, between deep earth and sky had suddenly waked up, and was considering you with the same slow care that it had given to its own inside affairs for endless years.” (BOOK II; ‘Treebeard’, pg. 77)

How could we not learn from such creatures? How could we not wish to become like them? I mean ; “enormous wells with ages of memory of slow thought and a sparkling present as surface”, who does not seek something like this before death arrives? We moderns in particular; how could we not learn from beings whose motto, Tolkien tells us, is “do not be hasty”?

It is the pull of these two views, summed up in the contrasting words of Socrates and Tolkien, that move me to write this journal. I am extremely fond of trees, but I do not want to simply project my fears upon them. If they do indeed have nothing to teach me, I prefer to know.

3. Two understandings of trees; secular biology and sacred wisdom.

To better understand this puzzle, which I myself find difficult to grasp and even to share with you, one can bring to memory certain stories. Think of the role trees play in two very important events in human history. One concerns the origins of Buddhism; the other, the origins of our modern scientific approach.

It is said that Siddhartha, at the age of 29, was forever transformed when he came upon the sight of four very special humans: an old crippled man, a sick man, a decaying corpse, and finally a wandering holy man. The sight of suffering and the search for a meaning to such suffering, became the meaning of his life. Years later, it is said that while sitting in meditation under a bodhi tree Siddhartha reached enlightenment and became a Buddha.

“But, what does all this have to do with trees?,” impatiently you ask. Very much. The Bodhi tree plays a central role in the story; Siddhartha could just as well have been meditating in the shower when he reached Nirvana. Or under an orange tree. But that is not how the story goes. Instead, there is something in trees, specially THIS tree, which brings us closer to certain fundamental and sacred truths about ourselves and the universe. No wonder in Buddhism the bodhi tree is considered to be THE tree of wisdom; it is both sacred and its name literally means “supreme knowledge”. ([link] ) Scientific nomenclature itself has been so struck by this that it calls the tree, using its binomial categorization, ficus religiosa! [link]

(If you come from a Christian background, as many of us do in the West, you might ponder about our very own initial myth, that of the tree of life and the tree of knowledge: “And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Genesis 2; 9; For a consideration see Thomas Pangle Political Philosophy and the God of Abraham[link] )

But we modern westerns also have another, very different story about trees. It is the story of Sir Isaac Newton’s tree. ( [link] ) It is said that the apple that hit Newton on the head allowed him to think anew our relation to the universe and its fundamental laws. The privileged realm above in the heavens could now be understood by the very same laws which were applicable to the natural world right here in our Earth. Of course, this might not have happened exactly as the story goes, but the myth has greatly become part of our understanding. And I ask myself, can you sense how different roles the trees play in each of these two very important stories? What Newton discovers is not wisdom in the company of a wise tree, but his universal mathematical understanding over and above any tree. For ALL trees are covered by the laws of gravity. In contrast, in Buddhism, NOT ALL trees are wise trees. Newton and Siddhartha sought the comforting shadow of trees for two VERY different reasons. [link] .

What this story reveals then, if I am right, is that we can no longer safely move without reaching into BOTH stories. Trees, in the West particularly, have definitely lost the strong symbolic powers which once attached to them and linked them directly to the Gods. It would seem that this is simply a loss. But I do not think so. The story of yet another tree may help us to understand the necessity of both discourses. It is the story of the neem tree.

On the one hand, ayurvedic medicine has known for centuries of its multileveled benefits. They are so many that it is actually called the “village pharmacy”. So a pre-scientific understanding has already gained much. But the biological-scientific understanding seems to provide the possibility for this tree ‘s playing a central role in the defense of complex ecosystems themselves:

“Of primary interest to research scientists is its activity as an insecticide. Many of the tree’s secondary metabolites have biological activity, but azadirachtin is considered to be of the most ecological importance. It acts by breaking the insect’s lifecycle. Research has increased in the past few years as the desire for safe pest control methods increases and it becomes apparent that this tree will be able to play a role in integrated pest management systems.“

It seems, then, that both discourses have MUCH to gain from their interaction. And yet, at the same time, we are overly conscious of the destruction of trees and rainforests in our world. We no longer have the confidence we once had that the solution to our technologically generated dilemmas can be cured by the use of technology itself. We recognize that something has gone wrong with this scientific-instrumental view of nature. We fear, rightly, that it does not have the tools to pull itself out of the dangers it generates.

And the tension of our initial puzzle, which I hope has progressively become clearer, returns. On the one hand it is WE humans who are disrupting the planet and therefore humbly must take into consideration the symbolic relevance of other living beings. But on the other hand, we somehow sense that WE alone have consciousness of the world and know what it would actually mean to SAVE or DESTROY this living world of ours. Perhaps if we try to understand more closely the dangers of instrumental reason we can get clearer still on this difficult puzzle. Here, the aid of some philosophers is much required.

4. Instrumental reason and deep ecology

To see how deep we are into this scientific model of understanding nature, we can do an exercise in memory. Biology courses provide a great example. For, it seems, we moderns take it for granted that the way we classify nature and seek to understand it, is THE primary way of access to the world. A standard biological definition of a tree reads: “A tree can be defined as a large, perennial, woody plant. Though there is no set definition regarding minimum size, the term generally applies to plants at least 6 m (20 ft) high at maturity and, more importantly, having secondary branches supported on a single main stem or trunk.” [link]

That we do not feel any uneasiness at this view of trees, should indeed make us a bit uneasy. This understanding of trees is quite unique and problematic. Don’t you see something odd here? First of all, it is indeed odd to even try to define trees. Of course, biology requires it. But, is this mode of access the PRIMARY access to trees we must adopt? What this model emphasizes is not without problems. We classify, categorize, measure and analyze. Don’t you feel you are objectively being told what a tree is, as if the tree were being observed from above, rather than the tree being a participant in a complex ecosystem? And such definitions usually continue by telling us what we westerners seem to love, they proceed to speak of superlatives. We are immediately told about the tallest, the widest, the oldest, constantly seeking in reality what we can quantify analytically. However, as for the height of trees, it is interesting that we are told: “the heights of the tallest trees in the world have been the subject of considerable dispute and much (often wild) exaggeration.”. Trees serve our purposes for recognition by others; we want to have the tallest tree near US, so we can stand out much taller than we actually are.

But how to quantify what for others is the sacredness of certain trees? The Bodhi tree does not seem to stand so much physically apart from all other trees as it does spiritually. To have been the one tree under which marvelous events occurred, what more could a tree wish for? A more comprehensive, a deeper, understanding of trees is required. Trees must be allowed a voice beyond their classification. Poetry, as we shall see, is such a possibility.

Many philosophers have likewise pointed out how strange this view of reason is; primarily because it begins its processing by severing our access to the world of living things. For it to work accurately and cleanly, it must begin by separating us form the world. This is a non-starter for many of us. This strangeness can be revealed as well in our modern maps. This type of reason is known in philosophical circles as “instrumental reason”: It has a complex history of its own connected to the rise of the new science defended by Bacon and Descartes. Among other things, when one speaks of instrumental rationality the idea is that we consider the means without thinking reflexively about the ends to which this means might lead us. Production must keep increasing even if there will in the end be nothing to produce with. We seem caught in this self-destructive dynamic. Underpinning this view of the world is the preponderance of a cost-benefit analysis and in general a utilitarian outlook to ourselves, others and nature. Taylor sums up the issue quite well:

“Instrumental reason has grown along with a disengaged model of the human subject, which has a great hold on our imagination. It offers an ideal picture of human thinking that has disengaged from its messy embedding in our bodily constitution, our dialogical situation, our emotions and our traditional forms of life in order to be pure, self-verifying rationality. This is one of the most prestigious forms of reason in our culture.“ (“The Ethics of Authenticity”, a MUST read for ANY artist, pg. 102)

Disengaging ourselves from trees, easily we topple them. We might say to ourselves: “They cannot engage in dialogue; so much the worse for them.”

To this position the Romantics, among many, revolted. They pointed out the dangers of this separation between humans and their natural world. Art became a way to bridge the disconnected parts which conformed a mechanical view of the universe. To make a very long story short, what has come out of such critiques is what is known as a stance called “Deep ecology”. This position stems from a reconsideration of what language reveals about ourselves and the world we inhabit. Under it, living things place a demand on us humans which moves us beyond our anthropocentrism into a view in which we “let things be”. In an article entitled “Heidegger, Buddhism and deep ecology”, Michael Zimmerman writes:

“Buddhism, Heidegger and Naess argue that puncturing the illusion of permanent selfhood would alleviate the infliction of such suffering by freeing one from the illusory quest for total control. Being liberated from the illusion of egocentrism also frees one from the spontaneous compassion towards other beings human and non-human alike. One ´lets things be´ not for any external goal, but instead simply from a profound sense of identification with all things” (pg 263-264)

It is not by chance that it is Buddhism which leads the way here. Siddhartha knew much about trees, or so it seems. Now, this perspective in itself is not without problems, but it stands as a powerful critique of the anthropocentric view which sees humans as dominators of nature, rather than as one of the highest expressive possibilities of the natural.

Deep ecology reconsiders seriously the role language plays in our relation to the world. Instead of using language to classify the world, words become the way to disclose things and allow them a voice beyond our own. Having language center exclusively on humans likewise makes it impossible to hear subtler languages which open humans to realities beyond their own anthropocentric paradigm. Our initial puzzle seems to have found a possible response. Although it is WE humans who have language, it is by changing the way we understand language, that we can hear the voice of the living things to which we belong. Something like this is what Taylor is trying to get at with the use of the term “epiphany”:
“what I want to capture with this term is just the notion of a work of art as the locus of a manifestation which brings us into the presence of something which is otherwise inaccessible, and which is of the highest moral or spiritual significance; a manifestation, moreover, which also defines or completes something, even as it reveals” (SotS pg 419)

Art in particular provides the human possibility in which epiphany can be realized. Perhaps now we are more prepared to listen to Quasimodo’s poem about a very unique tree.

5. A poem about a unique tree: “A Refuge of Nocturnal Birds”

Do forgive so many twists and turns. Now, finally, to Quasimodo’s complete poem. A Refuge of Nocturnal Birds, reads:

“High on a cliff there’s a twisted pine;
intently it listens into the abyss
with its trunk curved down like a crossbow.

A refuge of nocturnal birds,
in the deepest hours of midnight it resounds
with the swift fluttering of wings.

Even my heart has a nest
suspended into the darkness, and a voice;
it, too, lies awake listening at night.”

Let’s listen to it a stanza at a time. We must remain open to see what poetry can reveal and transform as it reveals. It reveals complexities, even if made up of the simplest of words. As few other arts can, it reaches origins.
First Stanza

“High on a cliff there’s a twisted pine;
intently it listens into the abyss
with its trunk curved down like a crossbow.”

The poem opens by distancing us from what appears is its main character. High on a cliff, far away, one sees a tree. But this tree is not just any tree. It could have been a maple, or a eucalyptus. But no. It is a pine. “Why a pine?,” you might ask. Only later shall we see. We must be patient and not skip the lines of the poem. We must not be hasty as Tolkien’s trees remind us. But then we puzzle a bit. This pine is no ordinary pine; it is instead, twisted. But tell me: have you ever seen a twisted pine? Aren’t pines the straightest of trees? Why does Quasimodo do this?

Perhaps that this special pine is twisted tells us something. It is a pine which has undergone a transformation. Its nature is no longer what other trees of its species take for granted. It has mutated. It stands out. And we imagine all other pines blushing somewhat at the sight of such abnormality. In contrast, Siddhartha would not have mocked this tree. .

Having described the tree and its location, we are now told what it actually DOES. Trees aren’t really the most active of creatures. But this tree is special. It is a listening tree. It listens with its twisted trunk. How does it listen? This tree listen INTENTLY. It is an intense twisted tree. What does it listen to? It listens to the abyss. It listen to the depths; to the depths of time and the darkness of origins.

And through the magic of words Quasimodo suddenly transports us from the distance on the high cliff afar, to a certain closeness to this tree. We are moved , with a few words, to focus on the shape of its trunk. The tree trunk provides the solidity of a tree’s very existence. Just remember the biological definition of trees. It is the trunk which holds the branches, not the other way around. Surely a tree without a trunk is like a person without a spinal chord. And this tree’s trunk has a special form; that of a crossbow. And we puzzle at Quasimodo’s choice of words. A crossbow for what? This pine intently listening is both a pine and a crossbow. Now we suddenly understand why it MUST be a pine. For a pine has the form of an arrow. This pine listening intently projects itself ready for flight as an arrow thrown from its very own being towards itself. But how can this be so? Have you ever seen a tree move? How can it move while remaining in its place? Trees seem to have a certain magic to them.

Second Stanza

“A refuge of nocturnal birds,
in the deepest hours of midnight it resounds
with the swift fluttering of wings.’

Quasimodo gives us pause to rethink what has happened. And while we do so, we return only to suffer a move towards the inside. This fantastic tree, shunned by other trees in their upright existence —–which does not mean this tree is not itself upright, only that it is so in a very different way— has a peculiar function. It is the tree chosen by the surrounding birds. It is a refuge for life. Bent, it can carry the birds which upright trees might not. These winged friends flock to it at night, when the light of day is gone and great perils arise. Waiting in time, probably remembering its own rings, suddenly this tree resounds in the darkest of moments. And we look carefully at Quasimodo’s choices upon the many which opened before him while writing. This tree “resounds”. Why not simply say that this tree “sounds”? Why emphasize that it RE-sounds. Perhaps because this tree has sounded before, and will sound again at midnight as long at it lives and there are humans to tell the story. Other trees seem soundless in comparison.

It resounds at a specific time; at the time in which much of night has gone by, and still much of night is still to come. One needs strength to survive until midnight and great hope to survive afterwards. For dusk is long past, and dawn is far away. How can we be sure dawn will in fact arrive? This tree has no songs of its own, though its rings have the memory of countless singing inhabitants it has outlasted. This unique tree resounds with the fluttering of wings. Swiftly the birds ——who take refuge in it as a home—– give it motion and musicality. Instead of simply lying asleep within the tree, they keep it close company. It is as if the birds —-in gratitude towards this special tree— want to take the crossbow which this twisted tree is, directly into flight. Unable to fly, this tree is now prepared, because of the presence of fluttering birds, to fly. For we are truly grateful to refuges; particularly to those refuges which took us in the midnight hours of our lives. Specially those refuges who gave us shelter based on the DIFFICULT maturity of true generosity. Grateful as Siddhartha must have been before he became another; a much better other.

Third Stanza

“Even my heart has a nest
suspended into the darkness, and a voice;
it, too, lies awake listening at night.”

And we catch our breath for we are heading towards the end. We began far way, only to enter into the very branches which hold these birds within. But now, suddenly, WE appear to ourselves for the very first time. The twisted tree OUT there in the cliff, the birds OUT there in the twisted tree, becomes the tree IN which WE live. We are not the tree, but we are close. Have you ever been close to a tree? Quasimodo tells us that even our hearts have a nest here. But we KNOW we are not birds If you have doubts, try to fly into the abyss. And yet, a bit like birds, we create our nests from the twigs and small branches of our lives. Furthermore, for Quasimodo the nest is not primarily for our brains, or legs; though it is ALSO nest for them. It is primarily a refuge for our hearts. This twisted tree is a refuge for artists who value our emotional human existence as a privileged way of accessing the world which surrounds us in constant immediacy.

Quasimodo is grateful as well; even HIS heart has a nest. This is why he shares this poem with us. He does not simply want a nest for himself, but rather a nest for US. But this nest, we are told, lies suspended. It lacks a firm grounding which guarantees total safety. Total and firm grounding is not a possibility for us moderns, as it was possible for earlier times. Our access to nature as moderns cannot have the grounding we once knew in earlier mythologies which allowed for a direct connection between trees and gods. We know of science and its understanding. This is why our nest lies suspended in the darkness. .A strong and compassionate refuge is required precisely in such times. It is in darkness that the generosity of shelter becomes a gift. Suspended in the darkness and close to the abyss, Quasimodo’s poem allows us to reconsider ourselves and our relation to the world of trees.

And then the MOST puzzling aspect of the poem appears as a lightning bolt. Quasimodo briefly adds “and a voice”. Not the tree’s voice. Not the birds’ voices. Not Quasimodo’s voice, for he could just as well have said “my” voice. And yet it is A voice. This voice does not have the presumptions of possession, but rather discloses, in the darkness, the possibility itself of a language in which things are freed unto themselves for us to hear them. And what does it say? Nothing; for our human voice may perhaps have said too much. Instead, it is open to the difficult activity of listening beyond our own speech. This voice is open to the disclosure of nature in the very words of the poem we are reading together.

In contrast to so many voices, this voice lies speechless; it awaits the time to speak, to open itself in renewed speech. It listens, as once the twisted tree we knew at the beginning of the poem did. Awakened, it has allowed this tree access to language. Our consciousness –liberated from pure instrumentality – becomes itself a crossbow which projects the tree as an arrow into the abyss. This voice, the voice of the poem itself, resounds ever again as we feel the pull to return to the beginning, to its origin. Perhaps in it, awake at night, we might feel the echoes of a faint refuge for us humans, specially of us artists. Instrumentality has seen the possibility of a depth beyond its dangerous limitations.

6. Conclusion

This has been, once again, a long journey. I am grateful if you have been a refuge to my weak words. Perhaps now we are more prepared to listen for calls which we might otherwise miss. Perhaps at least this call must be heard; the tree of life must be heard before we continue climbing up the tree of knowledge. For it seems we know much, but live well little. Perhaps together we are now better prepared to listen to Quasimodo’s deceptively simple words. Let’s listen intently:

A Refuge of Nocturnal Birds

“High on a cliff there’s a twisted pine;
intently it listens into the abyss
with its trunk curved down like a crossbow.

A refuge of nocturnal birds,
in the deepest hours of midnight it resounds
with the swift fluttering of wings.

Even my heart has a nest
suspended into the darkness, and a voice;
it, too, lies awake listening at night.”


In alto c’è un pino distorto;
sta intento ed ascolta l’abisso
col fusto piegato a balestra.

Rifugio d’uccelli notturni,
nell’ora più alta risuona
d’un battere d’ali veloce.

Ha pure un suo nido il mio cuore
Sospeso nel buio, una voce;
sta pure in ascolto, la notte
. link )

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On Radical Linearism.

Those of you who have seen my simple drawings have done me great good. Their simplicity is shocking, specially to me. I mean, are they really complete works? Surely I must be kidding, right? Surely they are just simple nice sketches which will be reworked finally to really produce a painting. Surely it might even seem a bit arrogant to frame such few lines and pretend they are a finished works. In a sense this is true, but in another quite false. This is why I write this journal; to clarify to myself and to some friends what might lie behind the appearance and decision to draw such lines. In this sense, this journal continues the ideas present in my previous Journal “Lines and Beauty” [link] . In it, I briefly spoke about my love of lines.

So I guess first one must say that these lines have risen out of great love of some painters in particular. They can only be understood in reference to Kandinsky, Klee, Mondrian, and Miró. I will provide examples of the first two to see what I mean:

1. Klee (drawings and paintings)

2. Kandinsky (drawings and paintings)

If it were not for my contact with these painters, I doubt I would have ever drawn what I have. This is so because “abstract impressionism” led me on a truly anti-representationalist path. As Klee wrote: “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.” But these drawings are much more radical in their nature, hence the name “Radical Linearism”.

Have you ever stayed up late wondering about what your art shows? Have you ever had the need to express to yourself in words what lies behind your artistic decisions? Have you ever wondered after you submit here at DA, what is it you are doing? Well if you have felt this, then you will be open to this journal. But all this requires a bit of courage and the passage of time. Courage, because it is hard to defend a certain simplicity in our modern complex, technologically-oriented, world. And the passage of time, for I doubt a few years ago I could have even thought about writing this. Perhaps the preparation for my PhD thesis has allowed me to understand myself a bit more. And finally, there is always recourse to great artists and thinkers. As Da Vinci is said to have written:

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”

Obviously this cannot mean that Da Vinci was a simpleton! Simplicity is far from superficiality. Quite the contrary, simplicity may sometimes provide a radical critique of our supposed complexity; a complexity which may truly be hiding us from ourselves. In this sense, this journal is very Socratic ——remember Socrates preferred, for the most part, to go about without shoes— because it asks of us to try to know ourselves. Perhaps more journals such as these at DA can help us better understand ourselves as artists.

To the problem. You see, the problem with these drawings I did in the period 2000-2003 —–after having drawn for many years much more complex figures and paintings— is clearly that they seem to be the result of a childish inability to develop one’s ideas so as to produce a real complete work. To see what I mean just take a look at some of these radical linear drawings. You will see and feel what I mean:

“Human being”

“Linear Woman”

“Minimalist landscape”

“Peasant “


“Linear Woman”

“Conversation over water”

“Mujer cuadriculada”



“Peace towers 9/11”

“Beating Landscape”




(and many others found in my Gallery; and still others which I have not submitted.)

The feeling some deviant commentators have had can be summarized as follows: “Really beautiful drawings and yet there is something lacking in them, a certain depth. They are cute and nice, but inconclusive. Surely there will come a point when you will have time to work on them.” So much have I heard this, that I even doubted whether to submit them at all, not to mention frame them as they are!

The defense. First of all I must repeat that, contrary to what one might believe, these drawings were done between 2000-2003, so that they belong to a much later date in my artistic production. Second, they arose suddenly as if of themselves. I had drawn extensively before, but these later drawings were quite unique and challenging. They seemed absolutely simple and yet I found myself with no desire whatsoever to modify them much! It is as if they told me not to modify them much.

To understand the issue at hand I must let you see for yourselves previous paintings and drawings which show the complexity which existed before the arrival of these radical lines:

1. Anthropomorphosis (1989-90) (A complex painting)

2. Temporality (A complex sketch from 1988)

3. My house (A complex sketch from 1993)

4. Rezo (A complex drawing from 1988)

So you see, now you might understand why these later drawings puzzled me so much. And what is still worse is that previously I HAD IN FACT used some older drawings to create much more complex paintings. Such is the case of

1. “Coupling”

whose sketch was done in 1987

2. “Soaring Sunset”.

whose sketch was done in 1987 as well

This is very paradoxical to me. I had already created complex paintings from similar drawings when I was much younger. These paintings provided possible solutions for the immature sketches to try to become more complete works. The solution in “Coupling” seems to create much beauty, but makes the lines fall into the background almost completely. The solution with “Soaring sunset” —-–to expand the lines and color them— keeps the value of the lines, but requires the use of color.

And then I asked, what if these radical linear drawings were ends-in-themselves? What would that mean? How could I make myself clearer about this with multiple commentators arguing that these “nice” and “cute” little sketches were just sketches? I told myself that the only solution I could afford to accept was that of making them much larger then they are, simply widening the lines so that they would not seem as fragile as they do. But aside from that, no color or transformation in the lines. I started to worry I was loosing it. And then came DA, and luckily I had to think about these drawings thanks to the comments by several kind deviants to whom I am grateful.

Thinking it through, I came up with the idea of “Radical Linearism”; first as a nice title, but slowly as a more serious possibility for self-understanding. The part on “Linearism” is too obvious to even comment. But why is it radical and not merely another form of abstractionism? Because the emphasis lies in the lines themselves; and, as far as possible, in the least amount of lines that one can use to express oneself with regards to any given topic or subject.

And so AT LAST, the following 10 points are what I think might lie behind the simplicity of these lines. (Please check out my previous journals so you do not believe this is simply a crazy fluke.)

Radical Linearism: some working ideas

1. The simplicity of these lines stands as a powerful critique of modern complexity. Busying ourselves at all times, we may have truly lost ourselves. These lines therefore stand as a kind of therapy against complexity; they remind one of the need to stop and reconsider. In this sense, they defend another kind of complexity.

2. Their simplicity is fueled by an economic critique. Their economy of form and color is set up in contrast to a society which enjoys consuming endlessly (consuming even the greatest of art works). Their economy of means is set up against a world of radical economic inequalities. They put forward the possibility of having less as condition for creating more.

3. The simplicity of these lines points directly to our mortality. Mathematically, a line is made up of points; but a point –according to Euclid— is “that which has no part” [link] . They in fact arose soon after I was diagnosed with a severe illness which made it impossible for me to walk for over a year, and also made it quite difficult to draw. It hurt to draw, hence the need for few lines. Is this why they seem to have a certain therapeutic effect? Is their simplicity to be understood in part because, when one comes in touch with one’s mortality, one gets rid of the annoying superficial complexity of many irrelevant things?

4. Their simplicity opens them as true possibilities. They can be seen as the genetic structure for further projects; a kind of DNA which can generate multiple possibilities. They could allow, as sketches do, to be reworked in different directions under differing conditions. (Isn’t the DNA helix quite linear; not to mention the way we represent molecular bonds?). And yet they are completely finished unto themselves.

5. The simplicity of these lines has a direct connection to Primitivism. They recall the symbolism of lines which appeared in caves as some of the first expressions of our expressive possibilities as distinctly human.


6. Their simplicity can be seen as spiritual. They can be regarded both as a reduction towards the essentials of a given object, and simultaneously as an ascent to a certain kind of “Purification”. Forgive me, but here I must have recourse to truly great painters. As Klee wrote:

“Some will not recognize the truthfulness of my mirror. Let them remember that I am not here to reflect the surface… but must penetrate inside. My mirror probes down to the heart. I write words on the forehead and around the corners of the mouth. My human faces are truer than the real ones.” [link]

Or as Kandinsky famously wrote: “The contact of the acute angle of a triangle with a circle is no less powerful in effect than that of the finger of God with the finger of Adam in Michelangelo’s’ painting.” (p. 77 Kandinsky)

7. The simplicity of these lines opens us to the world in a radically new way. The minimalist group here in DA — ~minimalism —- provides wonderful examples of what this might mean. (I myself have tried to provide photographs in this direction in my gallery.) Your eye becomes unencumbered in an age in which complex images assault us at every instant.

8. Their simplicity has a particular historical and personal context as the Colombian citizen that I am. They stand as a contrasting balance to our famous and magnanimous Colombian painter and sculptor Fernando Botero and his well-known over-sizing:

9. The simplicity of these lines invites the spectator to become an engaged and activate participant who —if she/he is open enough— must be truly puzzled by their very simplicity: As I wrote in my previous journal on lines: “One tends to think that lines reduce. But lines actually make you produce an image that is nowhere to be found in the world. Lines make you activate your seeing and your thinking. For lines ask to be completed by you, the perceiver. At first you do not see it, so you must look closer and engage what seeing cannot. They are deceptive because they seem too childish to hide any depth. But if you can see some depth in them, then —just maybe—- you really surprise yourself and therefore start to see lines all around you in the world. Of course, I rarely succeed in doing this, but I have tried hard for several years.” These simple lines may feed us by reactivating our imagination in an age in which imagination has become choked. And finally,

10. Their simplicity —allow me to venture into the area of understanding I have dedicated my last 18 years to— might even be seen as part of the tendency by multiple philosophers (Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Taylor) to criticize the Cartesian model of reality. In particular one might think of the profoundly influential Cartesian model of the “x-y grid” which has mapped our modern space and psyche. Think, for instance, of how odd our modern maps are when compared to their medieval counterparts. The simplicity of these lines does not seek to control space, but rather to liberate it to its multiple possibilities.


So, in the end, the question which “Radical Linearism” might be said to ask is this: why exactly can’t simple lines be just simply lines? . This journal has been but a humble attempt to answer it.

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Remembering Dalí: An Analysis of Two Paintings

Towards the end of the 1980’s The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts held an exhibition of the complex, enigmatic and harrowing work by Dalí. I must confess I was unconsciously frightened; it was this fundamental anguish which opened Dalí forever to me. As I remember it, Dalí struck me from the start; the first sketch which opened the exhibition was entitled “Painted with the right hand while masturbating with the left.” (Many years later, in 1973, Dalí was to paint Hitler Masturbating). And in the same room, hundreds of small ink drawings repeating themselves differently. Dalí’s Cape Creus populated by skeletal figures; bones and sea gathered upon the shore. The mountains of Cataluña —mountains also to be found in the Persistence of Memory— providing the distant background. And within the exhibition in surreal Montreal, strange watches I had never seen before; Dalí’s now too famous, now too obvious, soft-watches.

This Journal inquires about what may lie behind two of his paintings. It therefore continues my decision to try to make Journals in DA much more philosophical and critical than they are. The two paintings in question are: Persistence of Memory (1931) and its 20-year-older kin Disintegration of Persistence of Memory (1954). The ideas were first presented in a PhD seminar on Heidegger’s views on time held in my Colombia. (Heidegger’s difficult vocabulary has obviously been altered.)

Remembering the “Persistence of Memory” (1931)

The space which is this canvas opens human temporality in a truly enigmatic manner. The surroundings bring us close to our endangered earth. A blue horizon recovers for us the daily appearance of the natural clock which dates our days in continuous cycles of sunrises and sunsets. What does the sunshine bring forth? The mountains of Dalí’s childhood; more generally, the very space of our own childhood. In this sunset —which is simultaneously a sunrise— sunrays provide the light which allows for the appearance of the painter’s head itself anchored in placid sleep. Dalí himself appears anchored as a fetus is anchored before life unto the womb. Resting almost faceless, he lies over the hills of his youth.

Nature’s abundant vegetation makes its appearance as a lonely tree devoid of life which emerges from an overconfident cubic structure which does not realize it is itself made out from the deadening wood which it supports. And it is on this leafless-lifeless tree that a clinging soft-watch appears. Arising out of thin air, amoeba-like, it signals our time. We realize more soft-watches have been hung by Dalí for us to see. And yet we need ask: why only four? Why not five or six? Why not an infinity of soft- watches reminding us our own finitude? Perhaps four have been carefully chosen by Dalí to remind us of the three-dimensional temporal structuring provided to us humans by our natural understanding of present, past and future tenses. “Was”, “is” and “will be”; a triad which conforms our daily perception of ordinary time. Still, the fourth watch remains a mystery.

The first soft-watch lies projected upwards hanging from the leafless tree. It signals with its only pointer a continuous now at around 6:00; the hour of dusk, the hour of dawn. Time seems to have been forever immobilized by Dalí. Yet it is so far from being a regular watch, that its mechanism has failed. Melting softly, it has ceased to be the watch of our ordinary lives. Its pointer has ceased to point as it should. It signals instead another time, the future time when trees will be no more for our lack of understanding our own temporality. This futuristic watch lies covered by the sky’s bluish reflection which brings us back to the natural time of our natural surroundings.

A second soft-watch, which again is no watch at all, makes is appearance. It is this watch which reflects the constant being thrown of human beings into their present existence. Thrown unto existence one finds Dalí’s fetus-like face over the sand which sustains him; the sand of the bony beaches of cape Creus. It is the very same dust to which we will return. Showing another hour, this soft-watch melts in time —not over a rotting tree —- but rather over the profile of the artist himself. The time of the watch attempts to become a body, and yet it cannot; it fails. The watch’s time does not, cannot, capture our own temporal nature. Dalí is thrown into deep sleep within the canvas present before us right now. Dreaming of what was, the persistence of our memories springs forth; at times liberating, at times torturing. The time of watches, even of soft-watches, points to a temporal dimension beyond their constant ticking. In contrast, the creator in dreaming of time recognizes the true foundation of our desire for everlasting timelessness. Watches melt so that our present time is not reduced to a mere ticking time-bomb. We owe this to Dalí. As we watch at this very moment Dalí’s painting, time redefined suddenly makes its appearance through us.

In a moment, now forever gone, the third angle of temporality is revealed; this one takes us back in time to what has been. It pushes us as in a fall over a solid cubic structure which will explode 20 years later in Dalí’s reworking of the original, a new painting entitled Disintegration of Persistence of Memory. The pointers in this third watch signal an impossible hour; an hour which is simultaneously before and after six. Fallen in time, each of us is present awaiting his inmost creative death. How can this be so? Because the twelve o’clock pointer signals a mortuary fly awaiting our demise. And yet memory persists, clinging overconfident to its ticking time frame. But it cannot remain so.

The threefold nature of our temporal existence –with a past, a present and a future—lies open before us who are set in motion by Dalí’s dreaming of the persistence of memory, But enigmatically there appears a fourth clock providing a new angle of vision; perhaps providing an original depth to all existing watches that are currently handcuffing our modern wrists. This watch alone seems oblivious to its own future disintegration in the mirror painting painted 20 years later. It alone is not a soft-watch. Under the “Persistence of Memory” the surrealist project still finds a certain security, a certain rest. Earth and sky may still cover the painter, comforting him.

With this fourth watch, a premonition of disaster. Lying mysterious in its own secluded corner, it does not even reveal its pointer. Perhaps it has none. We don’t know; we can never know for it is closed and will remain so forever in the painting. It lies there, mocking us in self-sufficiency. Not only is it not soft and melting, it also stands firmly entertaining itself. It appears enclosed upon itself as an erotic apple whose reddish tonality invites us constantly to try to open it, and at the same time warning us about the consequences of doing so. Bloody is this watch upon which insects gather as in a festive spirit. It is trodden by concentrating ants. They trod the watch as we trod the beaches lit by the movement of the sunlight covering Cataluña’s mountains and Dalí’s portrait. It takes twenty long years, it appears, for Dalí to open this fourth anomaly. This first painting’s persistence fails to understand the aquatic world of the womb from which we all arise in time. To even try to open this ant-ridden all-too-hard watch, there must first appear before us the “Disintegration of Persistence of Memory”.

Remembering the “Disintegration of Persistence of Memory” (1954)

The world of calming blues has left. It is now another time; two decades have gone by. And now fifty years have passed since then for us in 2005 still confronted daily with the mystery of our temporality. In Dalí’s later painting the world has become golden as a desert in which the temperature melts even soft-watches and the reality they have tried to safeguard. The force of the primordial dissolves everything present.

The same mountains appear as other, as foreign. Why? Not so much because of the different coloring, but rather because the land has broken away as if by a tectonic plaque. The mountains of youth, of innocence, have broken away from the security which previously allowed Dalí his placid dream. Properly speaking, the continent now appears there in the distance. It was once closest, now it remains inaccessible. We stand over water where once continental land ruled. The world has become a permanent becoming in which time itself becomes transformed. Memory disintegrated has nowhere now to anchor itself firmly. The solid ground has become liquid. Earth becomes once again marine; but not really, the world simply once again knows itself to have been marine. Memory must constantly forget this to remain as solid as can be.

And not even that is true, for one sees not water, but rather a thin canvas supported by the weakened branch of a new minute, but still leafless tree, which carries upon itself all the weight of sanity. Our previous tree has given birth to itself, but dwarfed by the passage of time. Surprisingly it isn’t even held in place by the strength of the cubic form which supported it 2 decades ago. How, then, could it support the whole of the coetaneous canvas which it carries? It might be really supported instead by the very canvas which opens itself before our spectator’s eyes as a new skin awaiting our explorations. By watching Dalí’s watches unfold, we ourselves sustain that tree which stares at us in the anguish of one who knows himself soon to collapse. And yet the elder tree of decades past has sprout a sibling; disintegration seems to allow for the possibility of the rebirth of self-sufficient trees freed from the necessity of leaves.

What has happened to the watches we have watched? Quite a lot. The angle of future existence supported by the changed tree explodes. Its bluish tranquility gives way to the metallic color of lifeless minerals. The pointer is thrown in flight into pieces. It has imploded; only a natural shadow remains. This watch can no longer be winded. Time has undergone a further transformation from the one we found in the Persistence of memory. A deeper time, the foundational time of poetry, is glimpsed. Implosion has rid the previous soft-watches of numbers, leaving instead the shadow of their mathematics. Shadows which provide the key to our most human possibility, a glance into our mortality which lies hidden from us busying ourselves at all times without any temporal depth, relying constantly on watches which have remained dangerously overlooked.

But something rather different occurs below the watery surface with our second watch. The portrait of the artist as a young man lies now dissolved in the uncertainty of he who no longer governs his own time. Creativity gains control over our desire to control time. Dalí reveals our desire for immortality as the dangerous desire which possesses us. Opening itself to its most primordial temporal depth, each face looses its definite figures. Conscious of the body’s temporality, Dalí liberates the body from itself and its sufferings. It is only then that the dangerous liberation from the time of ticking watches takes place. The logic of numbers lies revealed; numerical data no longer dates.

Our third soft-watch —–which previously anchored itself firmly on the cubic structure— now appears fully submerged undergoing with certainty the process of its own unstoppable rusting. Void of life, it appears golden metallic much like king Midas’ attempt to govern the temporality of his loved ones. It has moved indicating 12 o’clock. Twenty years have gone by in only five minutes. The time of those who are ill, as ill as Hans Castorp —Thomas Mann’s wonderful hero from The Magic Mountain —– has appropriated our temporal existence. The time which reveals a never-ending afternoon is done away with; the canvas instead reveals the longest day ever recorded as the few last instants of the drowned man to whom his life is suddenly revealed.

And what has occurred to our enigmatic fourth soft-match? It has been displaced unto the depths of the canvas. Now it appears open, almost just as any other watch does; now we seem to know it. And yet, underneath the nuclear structures with which Dalí fell in love in his later years ––which were to include the marvelous mathematic of the rhinoceros— we humans can hardly even see. The grounding of what is, must remain forever unfathomable. This uncertainty, which persists even after the disintegration of memory, requires the dignity of a courage free of illusions. It is in the courage of humans such as Dalí —-and his compatriot Don Quixote—- that we today may at least take a glimpse of those depths which are denied to us ordinary temporal beings. In doing so they provide us with the possibility of disintegrating our morbid assurances. Perhaps in this way alone can there come into being the beautiful Venus of Milo whose body reveals the bullfighter who knows of his instantaneous temporality in confrontation with Nature. Herein lies the magic —-far from the persistent memory of Nordic experiences—- of Dalí’s beautiful painting entitled The Hallucinogenic Toreador (1970).

A) Three other related paintings with soft watches
Soft Watch at the Moment of First Explosion, 1954 [link] , The Garden of Hours, 1981, [link] , Wounded Soft Watch, 1974, [link] .

B) Dali on the Internet


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  In the Myth of Sisyphus Camus retraces Hamlet’s famous words: “the play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king”. The murdering king’s bloody desire for power must be uncovered, and a play within a play will allow this. Camus is also, like Hamlet, keen on desiring to catch and uncover. This can be seen in our tracing anew his commentary on the words by Ophelia’s vanishing lover: “‘Catch’ is indeed the word. For conscience moves swiftly or withdraws within itself. It has to be caught on the wing at that barely perceptible moment when it glances fleetingly at itself” (MoS, 77). Conscience eludes us, and yet we desire to get hold of it, somehow. Conscience is a task, not a given; it is there, but it is not.

  Eros, for the Greeks, was much like this. It too moves in flight: “flutters its wings amongst the birds of air” (Sophocles, Love, fr 855, Lucas 224). We humans of course do not fly. And this perhaps it is why desire is so hard to ‘catch’: “as a sweet apple turns read on a high branch/ high on the highest branch and the applepickers forgot —-/well, no they didn’t forget — were unable to reach” (Carson quotes Sappho, 26). Eros  and Camusian conscience both evade us as soon as we attempt to ‘catch’ them. They are like red apples we cannot really bite, and yet we yearn to taste their sweetness.

  Writing a concept trace has to do a lot with all this. To leave a trace is to leave marks, a sign of something’s presence. But the marks stand there as a memory, what left the trace in the first is long gone. And we long for it; if not, then why trace it in the first place? And so we set out to trace that which left its footsteps, or better, its wing-marks. For this particular quest we reach out to the vestiges of desire as it traverses Camus’ lyrical philosophy.

  But to trace, we ought to remember, is not only to follow, or to track down. To trace can be like the hunter; but we do not want to hunt, that is, catch in death. Hunters seem to be fond of stones. But stones leave no traces, for they neither walk nor fly. (Stones are truly not ruins, like the ruins at Tipasa). To trace can also refer to a much simpler innocent act that, as children, we repeated again and again and again. To trace refers also to the act of drawing or copying with lines or marks. To trace, then, is to recopy. I set out then to recopy Camus’ words, listening intently for the appearance of such an elusive force as is desire, the Greek Eros. In this sense to trace is truly to plagiarize. And plagiarizing is not only always inevitable and desirable, but, it can, if done properly, also be liberating. Besides, plagiarizing Camus is remembering him again and again and again. And this is something to be desired.

  Our search along desires’ vestiges in Camus’ marks and lines will proceed in triangular fashion: i) by providing the general location of desire within it, albeit, given that this is just a tracing, briefly, incompletely, and sketchily, ii) by giving some specific locations in the work by referring to some pages where desire has been “caught” in words, pages which I will copy once again, that is trace, as I did as a child, and iii) by letting desire have its play through the desire to question which we feel governs us. Questions born out of desire as fragile sketches.









i) General location


            a) Drusilla’s death is the death of a loved one. Besides it is the death of a desired sister. Loss here is at once erotic and filial. Caligula’s refusal to face this desire as truly relevant.

            b) Caligula’s desire for the impossible as symbolized in the moon. His drive to physically possess the moon; to be sexually moonstruck. Sadistic desire to kill and to obliterate, out of love of power and of the impossible, the other, the human and the possible. Caligula as hunter. The forceful desire to teach his logical truth: “Men die and are not happy”.

            c) Caesonia’s desiring love of Caligula.

            d) Cherea’s desire for meaning and his hard-won respect for Caligula.

            e) Caesonia v.s. Cherea on love.

            f) Scipio’s love and admiration of Caligula. Scipio’s love of art v.s. Caligula’s solitude and rejection of the lies of art.


ii) Specific locations


            a) pages. 4, , 6, 6, 10, 15, 71

            b) 7, 8, 15, 40, 46, 49, 71

            c) 17

            d) 21, 58,

            e) 63

            f) 67, 65,


a) 71, “love isn’t enough for me; I realized it then. And I realize it today again; when I look at you. To love someone means that one’s willing to grow old beside that person. That sort of love is outside my sort of range. Drusilla old would have been worse than Drusilla dead”

b) 46, “she was coy to begin with, I’d gone to bed. First she was blood-red, low on the horizon. The she began rising, quicker and quicker, growing brighter and brighter all the while. And the higher she climbed the paler she became. Till she was like a milky pool in a dark wood rustling with stars. Slowly, shyly she approached, through the warm night air, soft, light, as gossamer, naked in beauty. She crossed the threshold of my room, poured herself into it, and flooded me with her smiles and sheen … So you see Helicon, I can say, without boasting, that I’ve had her”

c) 17, “ I needn’t swear. You know I love you”.

d) 21 “to loose one’s life is no great matter; when the time comes I’ll have the courage to loose mine. But what is intolerable is to see one’s life drained of meaning, to be told there is no reason for existing”

    58, “he forces one to think, there’s nothing like insecurity for stimulating the brain, that of course is why he is so much hated” (words said even after his condemnation of Caligula’s “corruption” of Scipio (56)

e) 63, “too much soul, that’s what bites you, isn’t it? You prefer to label it disease .. tell me Cherea, has love ever meant anything to you?”

f) 67, “I shall go away, far away, and try to discover the meaning of it all … Dear Caius when all is ended remember that I loved you”



iii) Some questions


Is Drusilla’s role simply secondary, as Caligula says? Why then did Camus not choose any lover? What is that only emotion Caligula ever felt, that “shameful tenderness for” Caesonia (70)? Why does Caesonia ask Cherea if he has ever loved? Is Cherea truly ‘loveless’ and ‘simple minded’? Does Caligula ‘really’ think he has possessed the moon? If so then why does he say “even if the moon were mine, I could not retrace my way?” (49) What could it mean that Caligula is still ‘alive’? Does desire have to do something with it?





i) General location

            a) Maria’s unconditional, bodily love for Jan; simplicity; loss of a world outside Europe in which together they were happy.

            b) Jan split not only between the desire to fulfill his duty to relatives and his love for his spouse, but also between the land of exile and the homeland.

            c) Martha’s longing for the wind of the sea. Her desire to breathe under the sun, even if this implies murder. Her asexuality, bodilessness and stone-like character. (Like The Commander for Don Juan, like Sisyphus’ stone, like the Gods).

            d) The mother’s fatigue of life briefly cast aside through the emergence of a late love. (Like Meursault’s mother’s love for Perez)


ii) Specific locations


            a) 81, 84, 128

            b) 88

            c) 79, 105

            d) 81, 124


a) 128 Martha: “What does that word mean (i.e. love)?”, Maria: “It means all that is at this moment tearing, gnawing at my heart; it means that rush of frenzy that makes my finger itch for murder. It means all my past joy and this vivid sudden grief you have brought me, yes, you crazy woman”

b) 86-87, “As for my dreams and duties, you’ll have to take them as they are. Without them I’d be a mere shadow of myself; indeed you’d love me less, were I without them” …. and ….. “One can’t remain a stranger all one’s life. It is quite true that a man needs happiness, but he also needs to find his true place in the world. And I believe that coming back to my country, making happy those I love, will help me to do this”

c) “What is human in me is what I desire, and to get what I desire, I’d stick at nothing, I’d sweep away every obstacle in my path”  ….. and ……. “ I have a very different idea of the human heart, and to be frank, your tears revolt me” (129) …… and ….. “Buried alive! No one has ever kissed my mouth and no one, not even you, has seen me naked. Mother I swear to you that MUST be paid” (122)

d) 122 “its no more than the pain of feeling love rekindle in my heart”


iii) Some questions


Is Maria simply a secondary character? Is Maria’s appeal to the Gods a ‘weakness’? Are these Gods the same stony one’s of which Martha speaks? Is Martha’s longing similar to Caligula’s? Is it just in a ‘minor’, much less impressive, scale? Can it not be seen instead as appealing to the contrast between the public and the private sphere? Politics and ruthlessness as against family and intimacy? Is The Misunderstanding really more familiar than Caligula? What is Camus’ idea in recovering the force of this play in The Stranger? Is this a little like Hamlet’s staging a play within a play? Is Jan at fault for not being straightforward? How to understand the dichotomies present in this work of mirrors: home/exile, dark/light, burning sun/sun of life, family love/erotic love, past/future, rich/poor, men/women? Can the absurd be seen as springing precisely out of their tension? Would it be too crazy to say that it is rather strange an odd that Camus chose the names of Maria and Martha as those of the central figures of the work? Is it not puzzling that their names, out of a million others, begin with the three letters which stand for sea in Spanish(i.e. mar)? Are not Maria’s tears which Martha repudiates born out of this sea? Can one see Maria’s encounter with Martha as a mirroring encounter? Like the different mirroring encounters Caligula has with himself? What does this mirroring have to do with our recopying Camus’ words in front of us? What of the words in The Stranger  which tells us of the sea that “it lay smooth as a mirror”? (54)





i) General location


            a) Greek valuation of nature’s beauty. Socratic desire for limits and desire for admission of ignorance.

            b) Modern split between instrumental rationality, and expressive powers (Like Jan split duty/love)

            c) Hubris; desire of power (Like Caligula’s overstepping of limits)

            d) love of friendship (a healthy Scipio)


ii) specific location:


            a) 187

            b) 189

            c) 191

            d) 192


a) 187, “The Mediterranean sun has something tragic about it, quite different from the tragedy of fogs. Certain evenings at the base of the seaside mountains, night falls over the flawless curve of a little bay, and there rises from the silent waters a sense of anguished fulfillment. In such spots one can understand that if the Greeks knew despair, they always did so through beauty and its stifling quality. In that gilded calamity, tragedy reaches its highest point. Our time on the other hand, has fed its despair on ugliness and convulsions. This is why Europe would be vile, if suffering could ever be so”

b) 189, “we turn our backs on nature, we are ashamed of beauty. Our wretched tragedies have a smell of the office clinging to them and the blood that trickles from them is the color of the printer’s ink” (very different, of course, than that of Camus’)

c) 189 “Our reason has driven all away. Alone at last, we end up by ruling over a desert”  ……. and ……. 190-1 “Nature is still there, however. She contrasts her calm skies and her reasons with the madness of men. Until the atom too catches fire and history ends up in the triumph of reason and the agony of the species. But the Greeks never said  that the limit could not be overstepped” (Overstepping in a universe devoid of Gods)

d) 192 “we shall fight for the virtue that has a history. What virtue? The horses of Patroclus weep for their master killed in battle. All is lost. But Achilles resumes the fight, and victory is the outcome, because friendship has just been assassinated: friendship is a virtue?”


iii) Some questions


Is Camus’ view of Nature here truly romantic? Is not an appeal to nature as objective standard inaccessible to us moderns? Could one then relate this view of nature to our inner expressive powers? Nature reborn out of its transfiguration? Nature’s epiphany? Does Camus fall into a regressive desire for a land long lost for us, that is the Greeks? Is his a failure like Rimbaud’s  ambivalent Soleil et Chair? Or does he find a way to retrace this past era in a way that it opens, for us moderns, new possibilities of becoming? How to link Helen’s beauty with both a political project and an ethical outlook? Can Helen return form exile?





i) General location


            a) longing love of the homeland; permanent exile (Like Maria and Martha, and Caligula, and Jan, and Camus, and us)

            b) love of water and the Sea God (a God in Camus!)

            c) love of light; its ephemerality

            d) love of what is, as it is

            e) split love again: beauty and the humiliated

            f) love of love; an ethics of overflowing giving

            g) strange love of paradoxical articulated secrets


ii) Specific location


a) 194 Medea “You have navigated with raging soul far from the paternal home, passing beyond the sea’s double racks, and now you inhabit a foreign land”

b) 195 “for five days rain had been falling ceaselessly on Algiers and had finally wet the sea itself ….. which ever way you turned you seemed to be breathing water, to be drinking the air” …. and …… 200-201 “before dropping into the sea itself. It is seen from a distance, long before arriving, blue haze still confounded with the sky. But gradually it is condensed as you advance towards it, until it takes the color of the surrounding waters, a huge motionless wave whose amazing leap upward has been brutally solidified above the sea calmed all at once. Still nearer, almost at the gates of Tipasa, here is its frowning bulk, brown and green, here is the old mossy god that nothing will ever shake, a refuge and harbor for its sons, of whom I am one” (The sea of Meursault’s flowing with Marie)(Tipasa, the loved ruins of our youth)

c)  199 “In the earth’s morning the earth must have sprung forth from such light” ….  and …..202 “O light! This is the cry of all the characters of Ancient Drama brought face to face with their fate … I knew it now. In the middle of winter I at last discovered that there was an invincible summer in me”. (invincibility in Camus!)

d) 196 “disoriented, walking through the wet, solitary countryside, I tried, at least to recognize that strength, hitherto always at hand, that helps me to accept what is when once I have admitted that I cannot change it. And I could not indeed; reverse the course of time and restore to the world the appearance I had live” (dis-orientation)

e) 203 “yes, there is beauty and there are the humiliated, whatever may be the difficulties of the undertaking, I should like never to be unfaithful either to one or the other”

f) 201-2 “For there is merely bad luck in not being loved; there is misfortune in not loving. All of us are drying up of this misfortune. For violence and hatred dry up the heart itself … I discovered at Tipasa once more that one must  keep intact in oneself a freshness, a cool wellspring of joy, love the day that escapes injustice and return to the combat having won that light” (ethics of benevolence and artistic creation; good-fortune?)

g) 203-204. (a secret cannot be revealed)


iii) Some questions


Is the tension between beauty and the humiliated fully surpassable? Can one think of a longing to a rebirth of the world outside a Christian tradition? What is the relationship between Camus’ moving philosophical work and his moving and lyrical work? Are they complementary, in tension? Does Camus’ loving transfiguration of nature eliminate its silence? If not, then what does it mean to ‘leave everything as it is’?  (Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence)





i) General location


            a) contradiction: desiring the end of desiring. Force of suicide and lack of meaningfulness

            b) a desire too move beyond nihilism as loss of meaning. Beyond exile and malaise.

            c) desire and nostalgia: modernity and homelessness

            d) Lovers’ dialogue: A: “What are you thinking of” B: “Nothing”

            e) death appears: mortality and the end of desiring

            f) Don Juan’s Love: like a platonic cicada

            g) The actor: the body is king

            h) Conqueror: desire for articulation, lost causes and self-conquest.

            i) desire for creation: ephemeral works of art

            j) loving and knowing

            k) desire to break stones; hatred of unhealthy rockiness

            l) desire for happiness


ii) Specific location


a) Preface, 3, 5 “It is confessing that life is too much for you, or that you do not understand it … It is merely confessing that it is not worth the trouble”

b) Preface, “even within the limits of nihilism, it is possible to find the means to proceed beyond nihilism”

c) 6, “in a universe suddenly divested of illusion and light, a man feels alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy (a logical contradiction with b?) since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting is properly the feeling of absurdity”

d) 12, “but if that reply is sincere, if it symbolizes that odd state of soul in which the void becomes eloquent, in which the chain of daily gestures is broken, in which the heart vainly seeks the link that will correct it again, then it is as if it were the first sign of the absurd”

e) 57, “the idea that ‘I am’, my way of acting as if everything has meaning, all that is given the lie in vertiginous fashion by the absurdity of a possible death”

f) 69, 71, 72, 76, 77  “the more one loves the stronger the absurd grows” ….. “this life gratifies his every wish and nothing is worse than loosing it. This madman is a creative man” …… “yet it can be said that at the same time nothing is changed and everything is transfigured. What Don Juan realizes in his action is an ethic of quantity, whereas the saint on the contrary, tends towards quality” ….  “what more ghostly image can be called up than a man betrayed by his body who, simply because he did not die in time, lives out the comedy while awaiting the end” ….. “the ultimate end awaited but never desired, the ultimate end is negligible”.

g) 80, 81 “the actor is the intruder. He breaks the spell chaining that soul, and at last the passions can rush onto their stage. They speak in every gesture, they live only through shouts and cries. Thus the actor creates his characters for display. He outlines or sculptures them and slips into their imaginary form transfusing his blood into their phantasms”

h) 84, 88 “don’t assume that because I love action I’ve forgotten how to think …. I can thoroughly  define what I believe. Believe it firmly and see it clearly and surely. Beware of those who say :’I know this too well to be able to express it’ For if they cannot do so this is because they don’t know or it is out of laziness they stopped at the outer crust” (biting the apple of desire?) ….  “conqueror’s sometimes talk of vanquishing and overcoming. But it is always ‘overcoming’ oneself that they mean”

i) 93, 94, 113, 114  ( 93-4)“it is certain that a new torment arises wherever another dies. The childish chasing after forgetfulness, the appeal of satisfaction are now devoid of echo. But the constant tension that keeps man face to face with the world, the ordered delirium that urges him to be receptive to everything leave him another fever. In this universe the work of art is then the sole chance of keeping his consciousness and of fixing its adventures. Creating is living doubly” ….. 113 “ this is the difficult  wisdom that the absurd thought sanctions. Performing these two tasks simultaneously, negating of the one hand and magnifying on the other is the way open to the absurd creator. He must give the void its colors”

j) 97, 98, 117  (97), “there are no frontiers between the disciplines that man sets himself for understanding and loving, they interlock, and the same anxiety merges them”

k) 120, “You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is, as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted towards accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of the earth”

l) 123 “I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy”


iii) Some questions


Is Don Juan just a step on the ladder to the conqueror? Is this not too Hegelian a view? In other words is quantity leading up to quality or are quantity and quality at the same level; even in constant interacting conflict? (like Dyonisius and Apollo in Nietzsche) Can one have a Doña Juana? Is loving and knowing at the same time really possible?  Can one not desire suicide under certain circumstances? How is Sisyphus’ stone linked to Christ’s cross? Does not Camus tend to see the Greeks and the Catholic tradition too much like each other? Can Sisyphus be really happy, or is he just fooling himself? Can one really move beyond nihilism starting from it? Why does Camus say yes and no?  How is it that the body and all we are ‘become’ conscious of its mortality? By reading Camus? By being sentenced to death? By external events; an accident? Is the Myth of Sisyphus simply related to an ‘individualistic’ retrieval of ‘consciousness’; if so then why does the conqueror say, “as for me. I decidedly have something to say about the individual. One must speak of him bluntly and, if need be, with the appropriate contempt” (84)? What then does the conqueror’s self-conquest imply? How is it that art becomes the sole possibility of keeping consciousness?





i) General location


            a) Marie, lovely laughing living Marie. (Like in The Misunderstanding?)

            b) Salomon and his dog (Raymond and nameless girlfriend, a variation)

            c) Friendship; love of Celeste

            d) Love of ghosts: Marie’s traces

            e) Mother’s new love

            f) Love v.s. priest (Cherea v.s. Caesonia?)

            g) Love of life: love of ice-cream


ii) specific location


a) 27, 28, 29, 42, 56, 57, 78 

b) 52

c) 93

d) 75, 79, 80, 113

e) 120


g) 98, 104-5


a)  27, “ I let my hand stray over her breasts” …. I caught her up, put my arm around her waist, and we swam side by side. She was still laughing”, …..  41 “ One could see the outline of her firm little breasts, and her sun tanned face was like a velvety brown flower” …56 “for the first time I seriously considered marrying her” …. 78 “I remember Marie’s describing to me her work with that set smile always of her face”

b) 52 “I tried hard to take care of him; every mortal night after he got that skin disease I rubbed an ointment in. But his real trouble was old age and there is no curing that“ (Meursault’s reaction ‘a yawn’)

c) 93 “ I didn’t say anything, or make any movement, but for the  first time in my life I wanted to kiss a man”

d) 80 “ I never thought of Marie especially. I was distressed by the thought of this woman or that …. so much so that the cell grew crowded with their faces, ghosts of my old passions. That unsettled (desire unsettles?) me, no doubt, but at least it served to kill time” (compare to Don Juan “he is incapable of looking at portraits” (72))

e) 120 “and now it seemed to me I understood why at her life’s end she had taken on a ‘fiancé’. Why she’d played at making a fresh start”

f) 118 “and yet none of his certainties was worth one strand of a woman’s hair. Living as he did, like a corpse, he couldn’t ever be sure of being alive”

g) 104-5 “only one incident stands out; towards the end, while my counsel rambled on, I heard the tin trumpet of an ice-cream vendor in the street, a small, shrill sound cutting across the flow of words. And then a rush of memories went through my mind — memories of a life that was no longer mine and had once provided me with the surest, humblest pleasures: warm smells of summer, my favorite streets, the sky at evening, Marie’s dresses and her laugh. The futility of what was happening here seemed to take me by the throat, I felt like vomiting, and I had only one idea: to get it over, to go back to my cell, and sleep …. and sleep”


iii) Some questions


How does desire’s appearance relate to the idea that Meursault is simply a ‘passive’ character? Is not desire precisely where Meursault finds meaning in life? Is he not truly artistic in his meticulous descriptions of places and people; like Camus, in a sense? Is this a prearticulate sense of bodily activity and meaningfulness a more adequate path towards Caligula’s questioning and dismissal of Drusilla and consequent search for the impossible?  (Like enjoying ice cream, and the smells of summer, and favorite streets, and the evening sky, and Marie’s dresses and especially her laugh) Why did Meursault decide, finally, to marry her? What to say about Meursault indifference to his mother’s death,  to Salamano’s beatings, to Raymond’s beating’s, to his four extra-shots? Just chance? Just psychoanalysis? Just unethical? How do we in our everyday life become aware of the value of life; do we have to be sentenced to death? But is not reading this book a kind of death and a rebirth? How, if at all, can Meursault ever become a political being? Is there not a tension here?



We have in this way come to the end of some of the tracks left by desire in Camus’ words. But surely many other traces remain untracked, and if we are to follow the Conqueror’s conception of conscience, somehow we must be able to articulate what moves elusively in all these marks and figures. But for now, tending to believe that such a project is doomed to fail, let us remind ourselves of the ambivalent love of ice that Sophocles tells us children feel; that same love of ice, as of ice-cream, which triggered in Meursault the surest and humblest pleasures:


            “Like children that beneath a frosty heaven

            Snatch in their eagerness at icicles

            (First they are ravish with their latest toy;

            Yet soon they find it hurts their hands to hold

            That icy thing: and yet how hard to drop it!) —

            Even such are lovers too, when what they love

            Tears them betwixt ‘I would not’ and ‘I would’” (Sophocles, Lucas, 224)


Desire traced has come into our hands but it has melted; its gone. This is a feeling Camus knew all too well. It, too, is present in the gaining of our own self and meaning:  “For I try to seize this self of which I feel sure, If I try to define it and summarize it, it is nothing but water slipping through my fingers” (MoS, 19).

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