Wednesday, July 21, 2010

`Coincidence of Forms'

“Convergence is a phenomenon that offers infinite entertainment to anyone amused by coincidence of forms.”

Driving somewhere with my parents – endless smoke-choked outings to nowhere – I noticed a log leaning across a fence at an angle of about thirty degrees. I commented that it reminded me of a cannon, an object much on my mind during the Civil War centennial. My mother snapped, “Does everything have to remind you of something else?”

Well, yes. Nothing is trivial or dull if it evokes something else as part of a “coincidence of forms.” That’s the sort of imagination I’m stuck with – associative not analytical, happy with metaphor. Each object and word is a midden of meaning, a fact at the heart of Rosmand Purcell’s art. The sentence quoted above is from her introduction to Bookworm (The Quantuck Lane Press, 2006), photographs of decaying books and their cousins-in-form, the layered collages she assembles in her studio. Purcell’s is an art of visual echoes across time and space. Their decay is part of her subject, and this lends them a wistful, Sebaldian melancholy. Here’s a passage I wish I had written from her Owls Head (2003):

“Blackboard chalk, like the White Cliffs of Dover, is composed of millions of fossilized microscopic shells, algae, and single-celled animals called foraminifera. Lime comes from these calcerous nano-fossils that died on shallow ocean floors, forming beds of chalk. Under metamorphic pressure, compacted sediments in salt and fresh water turn into shale and slate. When I was a child, we used to roller-skate down sidewalks made of processed lime, draw squares for hopscotch, and write with chalk on brick and slate. When we drew on brick with chalk we dragged the exoskeletons of tiny animals across the surface of baked mud. So when my teacher took up chalk to write on slate in order to convey symbolically ideas about the English language, she was pressing creatures from an ocean against the bottom of a lake.”

Even across geological epochs, life is a dance of recurrent forms to those with imagination to see it. A lesson in paleo-geology is a riff on morphing. Purcell describes how a museum curator grew irritated when she photographed a mastodon tooth with “eight pinnacled cusps” and compared it to a mountain range. “It’s a tooth,” he insisted. (Well, yes.) She writes:

“The scientist may always need to know what something is but I intend to show these things, in the words of the late Minor White, photographer and pundit, for what else they are.”

With that final phrase I thought immediately of a line in Marianne Moore’s “He `Digesteth Harde Yron’”: “The power of the visible / is the invisible.” (On the same page as the Minor White paraphrase, Purcell writes: “Metaphors, to some, are like evil weeds.”) Moore’s poems and prose begin with attentiveness, disciplined seeing and enumeration of precise detail but don’t stop there. Her imagination, too, is disciplined, like Purcell’s or a good scientist’s.

Purcell collaborated on three books with the late Stephen Jay Gould: Illuminations: A Bestiary, 1987; Finders, Keepers: Eight Collectors, 1992; Crossing Over: Where Art and Science Meet, 2000. In Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes: Further Reflections on Natural Science (1983), the paleontologist and evolutionary biologist includes an essay, “How the Zebra Gets Its Stripes,” which mentions Moore’s poem “The Monkeys” and examines the Scottish biologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, author of On Growth and Form (1917). I’ve written before about Thompson and how I learned of his work from Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era (1971). Here’s some of what Gould has to say:

“D’Arcy Thompson struggled to reduce diverse expressions to common generating patterns. He believed that the basic patterns themselves had a kind of Platonic immutability as ideal designs, and that the shapes of organisms could only include a set of constrained variations upon patterns. He developed a theory of `transformed coordinates’ to depict variations as expressions of a single pattern, stretched and distorted in various ways.”

The permeability of the wall separating science from art is undeniable. The best of both draw from a melding of observation and imagination. As Kenner writes in the chapter titled “Privacies”:

“And the chemists, the physicists, the biologists, were everywhere discovering a pattern-making faculty inherent in nature. Salt was crystalline, bubbles were vectorial equalibria, Marconi’s pulses patterned the very ether, D’Arcy Thompson in 1917 explained how the bird’s skeleton and the cantilever bridge utilize identical principles.”


William A. Sigler said...


"The permeability of the wall separating science from art" calls to my mind the 1942 connection-rich, almost-forgotten biography by poet Muriel Rukeyser of pioneering Chemical Engineer Willard Gibbs, of whom another artist, William Gaddis (same initials, see the pattern), said "it was not Einstein or Planck or Heisenberg, but Willard Gibbs who brought on the first great revolution in twentieth century physics." Rukeyser, who did similar treatments of Wendell Wilkie and English Mathematician Thomas Hariot, was interested in a kind of essential unity between the branches of knowledge. The effortless way she connects things like the Amistad trial to debate between hard and fiat currency through the lens of Gibbs' vector analysis seems to me prophetic of the way the internet has changed the way we make connections.

The goal, as ever, is the human mind, the thing we make believe is only the messenger [insert Kenner quote on Marshall McLuhan here].

Ray Girvan said...

Blackboard chalk, like the White Cliffs of Dover, is composed of millions of fossilized microscopic shells, algae, and single-celled animals called foraminifera.

Uh, no, it isn't. Blackboard chalk is gypsum - calcium sulphate (an inorganic mineral) - making the entire passage an exercise in misinformed waffle.

The scientist may always need to know what something is but I intend to show these things ... for what else they are.

But taking the trouble to find out what they are is a good start.