“The most beautiful order of the world is still a random gathering of things insignificant in themselves.”
I read this for the first time while editing a weekly newspaper in Northwestern Ohio, my first job in journalism, a trade for which I was entirely untrained. “Editor” sounds grandiose, though it was my title. I wrote and edited most of the copy, and took photographs, which is how I taught myself to use a .35-mm camera and process film. Some of my favorite modern artists have been photographers – Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Wright Morris – and for a few years I presumed to ape their art. In the summer of 1980 I pulled over when I spied a collapsed barn partially concealed by weeds and vines. In the fallen building I discovered a readymade still life – knotted boards, a rusted spiral of cable, a dried-out thistle and, at the center of this arrangement of diagonals and loops, an empty bird’s nest: “a random gathering of things insignificant in themselves.” I captured a perfectly realistic abstraction. The Toledo Blade sponsored a photo contest, I entered and won in some non-portrait, non-landscape category, and the paper reproduced my picture in its Sunday supplement. I’ve hardly taken another photograph.
“Everything flows; nothing remains. [Everything moves; nothing is still. Everything passes away; nothing lasts.]” (Fragment 2)
Somewhere I have a copy of that Sunday supplement, but no prints or negatives. I last visited Williams County twenty-five years ago, during the same trip in which I visited Guy Davenport for the first and only time. Presumably, the barn has dissolved into the soil or been replaced by a parking lot. I’ve just learned that Jack Bryce, the guy who gave me that first newspaper job a lifetime ago has died at age ninety-three. Jack didn’t teach me how to write but gave me the opportunity to teach myself while getting paid to do so. I think of Jack, a serious jazz fan, whenever I listen to Bill Evans, who died Sept. 15, 1980. At Jack’s urging, I wrote a eulogy for Evans and published it in our weekly. This convergence – Davenport/Heraclitus/Jack Bryce/Bill Evans – condensed while reading Eva Brann’s The Logos of Heraclitus (Paul Dry Books, 2011). After identifying him as the only solitary, non-conversing figure in Raphael’s fresco The School of Athens, the one writing with eyes averted, she writes:
“That is Heraclitus, an engaged solitary, an inward-turned observer of the world, inventor of the first of philosophical genres, the thought-compacted aphorism, prose that could contend with poetry. It is linguistically ingenious, teasingly obscure in reputation, but hard-hittingly clear in fact. Each saying contains a concentrated drop of meaning—the kind of writing one would often stop to look away from. Such a style, tense and beautiful, seems to be favored by people who find harsh realism exhilarating.”