I am going with the divers. To immerse myself in their world, so to speak. The landscape: evanescent jellies over shadowy blue-green depths. Spider crabs over brown boulders. Sound bubbles murmuring like echoes of the lost continent. Muffled pings of distant sonar. Voices of the others, recording as I am now.
We used to play a game in pools. We called it see if you can tell what I am saying. We’d face one another underwater through goggles and the speaker would shout-scream, making exaggerated facial movements. We would interrupt ourselves with eruptions of laughter, come up coughing, decide in unison: try again.
Observations: submerged in this cylindrical ship, we become a collective cyborg. Once called the silent world, it becomes sonorous, an exercise in transduction. Transduce: to alter the physical nature of a signal; to convert variations in one medium into corresponding variations in another medium. Accoustemology: a sonic way of being.
It has been observed that in rural France, the circumference of a village could be defined by the reach of reverberating church bells.
And what are we doing here? If vision is for surfaces, hearing is for the interior. I think we are all here waiting for the sounds of the bells we missed, that we might gain access to a village we haven’t yet imagined.
We are listening. We hope that when we hear it, we will know.
Had I not known what they were, the artist explained, I would have missed it. He was speaking of Ci Wara sculpture. The word means work animal, he said. Translated through his lens, it was a bicycle, reimagined.
Examined head-on, the front view reveals nothing. But move with it. They would have appeared futuristic to me, the artist said, of the abstracted animal forms, had I not known their history.
Understood: everything as living. The artist is looking especially closely at the bodies of objects that have been discarded. There is added power, he says, in a ceremonial object.
A reimagined instrument will play new music. The curves of a guitar body may become the outlines of limbs, ears of an elephant, cut fruit; a piano’s hammers now tail feathers.
The artist raises questions about what happens when the will of an outside force is enacted on a body, insisting some identity.
The artist raises questions about what may happen when the will of any other force is enacted through a body, insisting some other identity.
It calls to mind the phrasings of certain instruments, aimed after midnight into some loving cup, repurposed as an ear––at the suggestion made by another teacher at another time, consent not to be a single being, which some of the latent forms in the body of a vast system of roots might take as a command to go down, while others hear a plea to hold, and others as an invitation to fly.
How does a body emerge from a cave, except by studying the interplay of light over living forms?
These days, it’s easy and modern seeming for any semi-conscious person to feel alienated in a dark place, but fortunately it’s also possible to find relief. I’ve been reading odds and ends from those writing in the Dark Ages during a time when the greatest artistic and scientific achievements of Western civilization had been demolished in a misguided bout of religious fervor. Whole civilizations had regressed to illiteracy, and yet. Even from these dark ages came the stained glass of great cathedrals, promising that the light of another world was dominant, and once inside the nave, it was possible for the vulgar desolation to diminish, eyes drawn upward to the light filtering above, in tinted bands that called to mind images of a divine presence reaching in––not to mention the flourishing illuminations of non-Western civilizations of which the Western mind was largely still ignorant, whether by hubris or circumstance. I was reading about these times and the gradual and then sudden awakening that followed. Naturally, one arrives upon discussions of certain shifts in insight that marked the movement from one era to another, and among these are Leon Battista Alberti’s 1435 treatise, Della Pitura (On Painting)from the translation by John R. Spencer (revised, 1966).
The following is adapted in my usual manner of a hungry person looking for something to live on, and borrows phrases from the translated text.
While the process of learning may fatigue, it is good to remember, art is not unworthy of consuming all our time. This because of its divine force, which makes absent men present and the dead seem to live. To paint a god beautiful is to strengthen the heart’s instinct to worship, and what is this painting, anyway? Consider it a matter of describing a space, organizing contents, and receiving light.
Consider also that a thin veil can be of use, to place between the eye and what is seen. May the lines be so fine they are invisible.
It is so difficult to imitate the movements of the soul. Doubters should try painting laughter on a face. Tell me that it doesn’t look like weeping. You can’t, can you? Thought so. Let’s begin.
Considering various mediums, and the interfaces between seen and unseen.
Every medium has its own personality. Paper is delicate so everything gets a dreamy fluid quality, light dissolving over the landscape. On paper you can see the smudge of erasure, the changes, the trial and error. Consider the difference between this and something like film, or film-less photos, those bodies of pixellated light in captivity.
With photographs everything looks like something that a crazed nostalgic is trying to freeze outside of time. Oil on canvas: longings laid bare, to hold what will not be held. The time spent anyway, squinting.
A bedside book in childhood: Lives of the Saints, dog-eared at Joan of Arc, because of the way she didn’t flinch, that insistently, cross-dressing soul. I think her gift was less that she heard a voice all day long telling her what to do, but that she listened.
Now it’s art books, too heavy to lift with one hand, propped open across a chest and half-waking dreams of Blake’s Jacob’s Ladder, all the near-transparent souls climbing doggedly into blinding light, none looking as though they have any idea what it may be, but there it is waiting, anyway, pouring over and through their bodies and their steps in a luminous column and you get the sense that they’re climbing forever like a white-knuckled novena, World Without End.
Joan was burned at the stake for three reasons: one, she wore pants; two, she wore them into battle; three, what she said about the voice she heard, even after it was clear what would happen if she didn’t retract. There was a line between what you could see and may not see. She crossed.
Before he painted Jacob’s Ladder, William Blake was getting regularly arrested for bar fights, and after he painted his opus, he died, as the legend goes, amid visions of angels. What did he see in them, I wonder, and how was it different from the eternities he saw in hours, the heavens in his wildflowers, or the worlds he found in grains of sand?
A want to hold it all in an instant, the forever dream against countless suggestions that seeing something is almost always very different than seeing everything, and the end of the world something different than the end of every known part.
Considering how you beheld, before your teeth had grown in, the wide embrace of infinite above you every time you looked up, how you wondered about the possibility that someone on an invisible and hypothetical planet, orbiting a just-visible or hypothetical star, in a possibly habitable zone, might at this moment or in a parallel twin moment, light years away, looking back with its parent, asking, Are we alone?
––and, suspecting not, how you looked and kept looking, sought and kept seeking, ransacked the monochromatic track-lit waiting room where the tired skeptics sat in comfortable clothes–– arms crossed, smirking; reminding them how when you started looking, no one (not one!) had even found a planet ––yet!
–– around any of these other stars; considering the calm with which you pointed out the problem of certain assumptions that the over-confident doubters were always making about the impossibility of your life’s work; about its wasteful utter futility, how you pointed out their blindness to life beyond the water we are so familiar with because it is in us, and the fallacy of assuming that what is not in us may not exist as a viable life, pointing to the wild, raucous late-night parties of extremophiles bubbling over in other impossible places like the cooling liquid of nuclear reactors; how, speaking of stardust and star stuff, we are part of a billion year lineage of its nomadic essence;
how you wandered after and in it, recklessly grounded against the leering jealousy of the waiting-room skeptics waiting for your failure, waiting for your infinite motion to stop, for you to decide to finally let the limits of your present reach preclude your future reaching or to deny the fact that a stretching embrace of what you could not possibly begin to hold was always and still the essential orientation of your organism, and finally admit your discouragement; how, with both feet beneath you, you observed with the same calm how, in a billions-year legacy of wandering out, out, and into this human-ness, your arrival––our arrival–– had happened only a blink ago;
and because you saw fit to remind that if someone looking for proof of the existence of ocean fish were to come up fishless on a first attempt to harvest one, using a twelve-ounce glass, from any of the world’s seven oceans, one attempt per sea, only to decide that fish were nothing more than myths we invent to feel less alone against the ocean’s expanse, that this would be a premature decision––not to mention, a poor survival strategy;
for highlighting the tyranny of light speed regarding the length of time it takes for a signal emitted by one body to reach the perception of another, reminding us that, after all, some of us just read the Antigone of several millennia ago, and what about the aurochs on the caves of Lascaux; what about what we knew before assuming this always-assuming human form, this particular constellation of ancient dust,
assembled just so in this moment, right now; as if to imply that the way to balance your urgency is with equal parts empathy for the speed of the living, for the devastating wait, slow and deliberate as any melting ice cap, of living on a planet that spins a thousand miles an hour;
the vastness of your patience with what you call a primordial mixture of hydrogen and helium that evolves for so long that it begins to ask where it came from and how you manage to understand that now is no time to stop looking, now is no time to stuff our have-beens into our ears, dulling our is-nows and forestalling the conception of our ever-shall-bes
––Thank you, because sometimes I need to be reminded backwards and forwards, and welcomed back again, into a space where I remember how to look, when I am meaning to see.
Jill Tarter is the co-founder of the SETI institute. Her life inspired the character played by Jodi Foster in the 1997 film Contact, an adaptation of Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel of the same name. I was inspired by a wonderful interview with her, in a recent episode of the On Being podcast Krista Tippett.