Nihil impossible est.

April 4, 2022
Me and David Copperfield, October 30, 2021

Do nonhumans experience wonder – or something akin to it? An assertion: for any given phenomenology, one might design a ‘vanishing act’ based on the nature of the specific sensorium.*

I half-jokingly describe gravity spoofing as “a magic trick for machine gods”, but there is something seriously wonderful about the idea of making a thing disappear in different ways depending on what’s looking at it.

David Copperfield’s huge, private museum of magic on the outskirts of Las Vegas is an open secret. One day, after gravitationally spoofing the disappearance of Michael Heizer’s Double Negative (a piece I should definitely not call Quadruple Negative, or even Double Positive), I hope to get research access to its stacks.

In any case, if I ever do have a chance to speak with Mr. Copperfield again, the first thing I’m going to ask him is what he thinks of F for Fake. I forgot to, somehow.

*A correlate: one might also cause things to ‘magically’ appear. For instance, I want to harness the atmospheric conditions of a Fata Morgana for a general-purpose projection system – and use it to raise an illusory drowned city from the sea (of course, I have a mind to uplift an actual submerged city too, but by a very different mechanism). I also want produce a giant hole in the Earth, but only in certain channels of perception.

In some sense, the world is constantly performing such tricks – obscuring and revealing itself (or, rather, aspects of itself), at all scales, for various phenomenologies. Whether by “world”, I mean as divinely revealed, made sensible by human inquiry, merely – and indifferently – constituent of nature/cosmos, whatever, I’m not sure. Honestly, if you are, I suspect you are also, at least partially, mistaken.

Cimmerium

March 26, 2022
Cimmerian Sibyl, by Giambattista della Porta

“Came we then to the bounds of deepest water,

To the Kimmerian lands…”

There is a curious passage in Book V of Strabo’s Geography:

Ephorus, in the passage where he claims the locality in question for the Cimmerians, says: They live in underground houses, which they call “argillae,”​ and it is through tunnels that they visit one another, back and forth, and also admit strangers to the oracle, which is situated far beneath the earth; and they live on what they get from mining, and from those who consult the oracle,​ and from the king of the country, who has appointed them fixed allowances;​ and those who live about the oracle have an ancestral custom, that no one should see the sun, but should go outside the caverns only during the night; and it is for this reason that the poet speaks of them as follows: “And never does the shining sun look upon them”; but later on the Cimmerians were destroyed by a certain king, because the response of the oracle did not turn out in his favour; the seat of the oracle, however, still endures, although it has been removed to another place.

What are we to make of this? Ephorus and Strabo knew very well the Cimmerians – whether or not, two thousands years ago, “Cimmeria” referred to the Crimean peninsula – were a people of the Pontic-Caspian steppe along the Black Sea. Strabo says as much elsewhere in the Geography. So what’s this business of them digging into the volcanic landscape of Campi Flegrei to establish a troglodytic oracular complex either at Avernus (in a geomorphological – and archaeological, alas – regime that was subsequently overwritten by the 1538 eruption of Monte Nuovo) or else within the nearby Monte Gauro crater complex (from the slopes of which, 15th c Neapolitan historian Scipione Mazzella claimed in his Sito et antichità della città di Pozzuoli, Christ descended to enter hell for his Easter harrowing through the portal at Lake Avernus). And did the destruction of this Cimmerium by some prehistoric king cause the Sibylline oracle to be re-founded at Cumae?*

While there certainly is archaeological evidence of Iron, and even Bronze, Age inhabitations of the Campi Flegrei that preceded Euboean colonization (given tombs near Paestum dating back to 2800 BC, it’s hardly inconceivable that the Guado culture might have extended as far north as Cumae), a.) I’m not aware of any that decisively points to the influx of a Crimean migrant/refugee population and b.) Lake Avernus fills the crater of a volcano that erupted approximately four thousand years ago, which is something to consider when testing Marija Gimbutas-like hypotheses of prehistoric migration. But if that is what happened – or even if that’s just what supposedly happened – it would help explain certain details in Book VI of the Aeneid (to do with Hekate Trivia [the og trinity], etc.) and weld the geography of Homer’s Necyia to that of the katabasis of Aeneas in a way that should matter to Danteists. Except for the fact that, prior to 38 BC, the slopes of the Avernus crater “were thickly covered with a wild and untrodden forest of large trees” (i.e., a ‘forest dark’) that Agrippa had cleared so his contractor Lucius Cocceius Auctus could build logistics tunnels and canals more easily, I’ll say no more.

*God speaks in hydrocarbons. In a region as volcanically active as the Campi Flegrei it’s not totally surprising that multiple Sibyls would spring up like fruiting bodies from the same fault rhizome. More so, I think, if they had operated contemporaneously; less if one Sibyl was forced to shutter – for whatever reason (e.g., a ruler homicidally displeased with an unfavorable oracle; or ongoing seismicity shutting off the pneuma in one spot and venting it elsewhere nearby) – before another hung her shingle.

7×7

March 21, 2022

It’s the sun’s birthday today, and my own. I’m thinking about my forty-nine solar orbits (as with the Talmud, so with memory), and the day of my death, passing by uncelebrated each year for lack of prior knowledge, and the shape of the Eternal Return in spacetime, and how Vico’s vision of history isn’t circular but helical; how, from above, it might look like waves propagating in a pond you lob a rock into, or tree rings, but followed down, or up, it’s actually Dantean…

Cumana

March 18, 2022

Below its acropolis, Monte di Cuma – an igneous blister on the western perimeter of the Phlegraean volcanological complex – is a trypophobe’s nightmare, riddled with pore-like cavelets interconnected into small, stratigraphically stacked systems within the hill (“quo lati ducunt aditus centum, ostia centum,” perhaps) that the Cumaeans, Greco-Romans, Paleochristian squatters, and Italophilic Germanic tribes all used and extended for their various re-purposes.

On Monday, the painter Eric Sweet and I scrambled about halfway up the mountain into a set of Nazi-renovated cave mouths that we and our high school friends used to drink in occasionally. They were full of poignant graffiti from people we knew as adolescents, some recently dead. Like entering a personal Chauvet, long after its use but before the deep future discovers it and wonders what all the huge carved penises were supposed to mean.

Inside those caves, we knew, there is one passage unlike the others: narrower, much higher-angle, with steps carved into the stone. My archaeologist kid sister remembers it being called the “Stairway to Heaven”. Kids.

Thirty-odd years after last using that stairway, I found it. It’s now mostly covered in chunks of ceiling and sidewall breakdown and unconsolidated, perilously slippery dirt, but it still zigs and zags until it reaches a small natural fissure at the bottom of a larger, fenced-off rock declivity within the oracular complex of the Cumaean Sibyl. It was broad daylight above and people might have been about, so I didn’t pop all the way out of the hole. I had, moreover, to hang onto cracks in the walls so as to not tumble backward down the steep slope. Hence, no great photos of that final view. But it was heart-thumping.

Baia sperduta

March 10, 2022

Bradyseism has drowned the ancient town of Baiae. Hence the irretrievable play on Baia/bay in the Italian version of a poem by Joseph Brodsky I recollected yesterday while walking back from Capo Miseno – from which Pliny the Elder rowed out to mount his fateful rescue operation at Stabiae while his nephew stayed home, claiming he had too much homework – toward the crater of the newest mountain in Europe – imaginatively named Monte Nuovo – on the shore of Avernus, the classical entrance to hell.

Procida

Baia sperduta: non più di venti barche a vela.
Reti, parenti dei lenzuoli, stese ad asciugare.
Tramonto. I vecchi guardano la partita al bar.
La cala azzurra prova a farsi turchina.
Un gabbiano artiglia l’orizzonte prima
che si rapprenda. Dopo le otto è deserto
il lungomare. Il blu irrompe nel confine
oltre il quale prende fuoco la stella

I don’t know if there’s already an English translation, but this is, more or less, what I hear in my head when I read those lines:

Procida

Lost Baia/bay: no more than twenty ships at sail.
Nets, related to sheets, hang to dry.
Sunset. Old guys watch the match at the bar.
The blue cove tries for darker blue.
A seagull claws the horizon
before it coagulates. After eight,
the seafront is deserted. Blue breaks the confine
beyond which a star catches fire.

I’d plumb forgotten that I stole Brodsky’s seagull for a postcard poem of my own twenty-(very)-odd years ago, written at Oak Harbor on Whidbey Island in the wake of a terrible automobile accident. Not that it matters, except as evidence that memory too is subject to Bradyseism.

A harbor where the dryads dwell
among the roots of an enormous Tour Eiffel
of oak. A pristine,
upturned palm of aquamarine
upon which ships unfurl their sails and reverse a
course toward home, reflecting clouds, and vice versa.
At or around eight,
an aeroplane, or seagull, pierces the horizon—whose failure to coagulate,
as one’s shadow is cast like a net,
crimsons the surf at his feet and produces a sunset.

Pitfall – Part 1

March 3, 2022

For Greeks of a certain vintage, Tartarus was both a god and a hole in the ground. A primordial being who emerged just after Chaos and Gaia did, and right before Eros. And also, ever, a subsurface pit – “as far beneath Hades as Earth is beneath Heaven,” according to Homer. Hesiod gets even more specific: a bronze anvil, dropped from heaven, would fall for nine days before it hit the earth, then another nine before it struck the bottom of Tartarus.

It’s this latter conception, of Tartarus as an awesomely deep vertical shaft within the earth, that Virgil and, by way of him, Dante appropriated for their matryoshka variations on, and enlargements of, the νέκυια depicted in the Odyssey, Book XI. These textual recapitulations, with the intent of re-contextualizing the Homeric underworld – thereby asserting primacy over successive poetical forebears while claiming their accumulated inheritance – exemplify, in some sense, the logic of Tartarus itself. For it isn’t just a pit. It’s a prison, whose prisoners are occasionally released – or, more precisely, jailbroken – to help topple a prevailing order. By “order” I mean the supersessions of Space by Time by Electromagnetism (ahem, I mean Ouranos by Kronos by Zeus), yes, but also of Greece by Rome by Christianized Europe, and many other sorts of pseudo-replacement – up to and including that of Neanderthals by modern humans.

Tartarus is a pressurized wellspring of such successions, of welling ups to overturn – some of which succeeded; others, were merely attempted. At bottom, it’s always the worst – Lucifer, most recently: a distribution of offenders that corresponds to gravitational differentiation during planetary formation. Weightier sins sink toward the center. Treason against god, in such schemata, being the basest metal. All the rest – despite their various rebellions having occurred sequentially, historically – remain, in cross-section, present, simultaneous, atemporal.

As with myth, so with metaphysics (and geology). Tartarus is as much a principle as it is a pit. A principle of under-the-groundness – of absence-of-groundness, even – with all the obvious ontological and geological implications thus imbricated. Its fundamental association with convective successions of orders of gods, from Kronos to Christ, combined with this under-the-groundness, makes it look a teensy bit, squinted at through the wrong end of hindsight’s telescope, like an intuition of stratigraphy: a logic of stone embedded in a mythographic matrix.

And of much else, perhaps. Remember: the prisoners of Tartarus are – or were, initially – the children of Gaia (i.e., of Earth), sired by Tartarus itself – that is, by an underness or absence of ground; or else by Ouranos – by cosmos, by withoutness. And what are these children of Earth? Giants. Seething, smoking, smashing, snake-furred, colossal boulder-hurling beings – be they Titans or Typhons, Cyclopes, Hecatoncheires, or whatever else. They’re down there in the pit, monstrous, enraged, awaiting their turn to vomit forth and war against the prevailing order. They are magma chambers. They are seismic swarms. Fumeroles, ripped in their dam’s flesh, stink of sulphur from their thunderbolt wounds.

My point being: these agitated subterranean earth-bodies are enchained at the bottom of an enormous tube that reaches the shallow subsurface. Age after age, their matter, as materiel, is brought up through this plumbing to combat an order which, once defeated, gets cast down into the depths of the earth while a new order is established at the surface and atmospherically.

In this sense, we aren’t just dealing with a theory of history or epistemology (although it is also those), but of tectonism: an ancient intuition of at least some of what James Hutton would articulate twenty-five hundred years later in his 1788 Theory of the Earth.

Reflektor 2: Venice

February 22, 2022

To the extent that a reflection can detach from what it reflects – from anything itself capable of reflection, especially – Eva and I sat at the back of a long black Mercedes Benz for the dark hour from Gatwick and took turns squeezing the other’s hand numb in – in my case, at least – a sort of neap tide of the mind, my thoughts neither shallow nor profound, waves of memory lapping against an embankment made of…of what? Of memory also. Memory is, after all, all there is. 

Venice: a city built on water by people hiding from Attila the Hun. In winter: nebbia, and the smell of frozen seaweed.

A journey that began on a fast train through the Veneto, reenacting the war between the gods and titans in voices of Sesame Street characters: “C is for the Cookiemachy, that’s good enough for me,” and didn’t so much end as attenuate, for hours, on a boat motoring lazily across the lagoon in a pink and blue light characteristic of the 18th century. “Tiepolo was a realist,” I concluded. 

By then, we had followed Wystan Auden’s ghost – a tear channelized by wrinkles, although he continued to laugh – into Caffè Florian, where I drank five quick whiskies and recited “The Fall of Rome” as the wine-addled Spaniard behind me, comically failing to comprehend his utensils, finally two-handed a whole dessert into his pie hole. The stolid bartender kept bringing small plates of nosh, for which I thanked him repeatedly; “You’ll need them,” he repeated back. 

I did.

Some islands we rubbed against; others, we disembarked upon; still others, we merely circled: San Michele, San Servolo, San Lazzaro degli Armeni, Giudecca, Murano, Torcello, Lido, Lazzaretto Vecchio, Lazzaretto Nuovo, the Sant’Andrea star fort, San Giacomo in Paludo, and all the rest. 

After a boatman pointed out that gold leaf once covered façades along the Grand Canal, I couldn’t stop thinking: what must that have looked like? 

The two basilicas – di San Marco and S. Maria Gloriosa dei Frari – are both worth lengthy disquisitions, but in the interest of brevity I’ll say only this much: they stopped my heart and restarted it, respectively.

Satyrs ate granola. Glass blackamoors bejeweled a chandelier. As Carnevale – the theme this year: “Remember the future!” – gained momentum all around us, the ratio among thronged bodies of those promenading in costume to those photographing them was tilting rapidly toward the masked. 

We heaved theatrical sighs whenever we passed by the Ponte de i Sospiri. I also passed through it, twice, between the vast, dark, sky-competing ceilings Tintoretto did for the Doge and the rude stone cells from which Casanova and Father Balbi daringly escaped to the roof of the palace in 1756. 

Some happinesses are irreducible. You try squeezing them, even for words, and they shatter into a confetti of disconnected images: 

A septuagenarian hip-bumping to Snoop Dogg, brandishing an orange spritz like she was on a yacht in a video. The quill Napoleon dissolved the Venetian Republic with. The Bridge of Tits. The jogger who, however often he passed us, kept reappearing from behind – as if to confirm we were trapped in a pocket dimension; or else, that following a thread means, necessarily, losing oneself in the knot.

In four days of superb meals, a navigational error led us serendipitously to the best of them. And just as termites produce tiny pyramids of dust, Eva and I accumulate our little piles of books wherever we travel; this time, from Libreria Alta Acqua, Studium, Damocle Edizioni. As she reclined at the foot of the monument to the doomed polar explorer Francesco Querini and his huskies, I read: “And, like the silk stocking of a burlesque half-nude / queen, it climbs up his thigh: gangrene.” 

Robert Harrison thinks the cries of gulls sound like eternity, I mentioned. And speculated that one of three water hearses lashed to a quay outside the Ospedale SS. Giovane e Paolo – the Eterna, Memoria, or Luna – might have been the one to carry off David Graeber. In the little museum of the island monastery San Lazzaro degli Armeni (to which Byron commuted for over two years to study Armenian while he lived on Lido), there was talk of the oldest sword ever discovered (ca. 3300 BC), which, through a quirk of history, happens to have been found in the archive there three years ago.

Eva placed an idol of Ganesha on the as-yet-unmarked grave of Roberto Calasso, and I squatted at the foot of Jospeh Brodsky’s – vegetable matter erupting from its dirt into an eerily humanoid shape, as if to demonstrate, eo ipso, that the resurrection of the body isn’t so much a question of final judgment as of perpetual reconsideration – and recited his “May 24th, 1980” back at him: “Yet until brown clay has been crammed down my larynx, / only gratitude will be gushing from it.”

The rest was fog and water, laughter, whisky, walking, and love. 

Fiery Serpents

February 17, 2022

Marcel Mauss asserted that a “myth is the mesh of a spider’s web, not a dictionary entry.” I agree, and have lately been following threads of a particular geophysical myth-mesh to some pretty far out corners of the web.

Early yesterday morning, for instance, I watched a short, jaw-unhinging documentary by Karen Kramer called The Jolo Serpent-Handlers (just wait until you get to the bit where a guy named Dewey Chafin, who survives an agonizing night – surrounded by a shouting, dancing, electric-guitar-twanging prayer vigil – after being bitten on the arm by a black rattlesnake [Crotalus horridus, probably] during a ceremony, admits it was the 68th time, over 28 years, that it had happened). And in the afternoon, in hot pursuit of the heraldic origin of the biscione, I set off across Mediolanum to visit the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio for a look at what was once purported to be the bronze serpent that Moses, per God’s specific instructions (see Numbers 21: 4-9), carried through the desert exodus on a pole to heal snakebitten Israelites who stared it in the eyes.

Admittedly, I’m less interested in puzzling through the seemingly contradictory position staked out by the Old Testament Lord and His lawgiver with respect to other idols (e.g., the Golden Calf) than in the fact that there is, to this day, a goddamn snake on a pillar in the middle of one of the oldest sites of Christian worship in Europe. I mean, this is where Ambrose converted Augustine, for chrissakes.

Whatever its actual provenance (the Byzantine Emperor Basil II is supposed to have presented it to HRE Otto II in 1000 AD as a gift wrapped in the Moses story) – and even counterbalanced, as it currently is, with a 19th-century cross on a pillar opposite the nave from the snake – the bronze is a deeply weird echo of ancient ophiolatry and of early Neoplatonisms and Gnosticisms that jockeyed for primacy with Arianism and the Nicene creed in the Paleochristian era. “A very obscure sect,” is how Origen described the Ophites. And how. Not just in terms of, ah, origin, but motive, method. And, as Roberto Calasso points out in the wonderful second chapter of his Tiepolo Pink, whom are we even talking about when we talk about the Ophites? “Cainites, the Perates, the Sethites, the Barbelo-Gnostics, the Severians, the Nicolaitans, the Archontics? No answer is given.” But I have, as usual, my suspicions.

Herpetological Footnote

February 6, 2022

When I wrote in the previous post that I don’t have “any especial herpetological interests”, I meant: except for Komodo dragons.*

A Komodo dragon can run down a deer over short distances. They’re cannibalistic, and fight each other standing upright like goddamn Sleestaks. They wear bonemail armor (osteoderms) under their hides. Their mouths are full of sepsis-inducing bacteria to which they themselves are miraculously immune. They can unhinge their lower jaws and consume 75% of their body weight in a single meal. They can swim in the ocean, climb trees, subsist on as few as twelve meals a year, and reproduce by means of parthenogenesis. And oh, yeah. They hunt in groups. The idea that there are thousands of these creatures – some ten feet long and weighing more than 150 lbs – creeping around the Lesser Sunda Islands of Indonesia is nightmarish. Imagine being a Homo floresiensis settler there 200,000 years ago, when darkness was truly dark, sitting inside a shallow cave and realizing your terrible terrible mistake.

*And maybe dragons more generally.

In 2015, my sister and I dragged our then-seventy-three-year-old mother to the ruined fort atop Dinas Emrys to try waking up the dragons asleep beneath the hill. My mom stood well back. You know, just in case. Afterward, something interesting happened. Standing over the foundation of a collapsed tower (pictured here), we started hearing two voices conversing in Welsh. It came as quite a surprise, given that we hadn’t seen anyone in the surrounding woods, or on the (only) trail up, or on the summit as we circumnavigated the ruins. So I ran around the hilltop trying to figure out where they were coming from, but didn’t find a soul. What I did see was an open cave mouth where it hadn’t been ten minutes earlier, in a shady depression beneath the circle of tumbled stones in which the dragons were supposedly confined in 100 AD.

A year later, in the Lake District near High Tilberthwaite, Jay Owens led me to a cavelet she and Ella Saitta had found with a curled dragon made of slate inside, beside a scratched stone reading: WAYNE WAS TASTY. The, ah, long tail of the summoning?

Union of the Snake

February 6, 2022

For a guy without ophiolatrous leanings, or even any especial herpetological interests, I have a lot of snake stories. Weirdly many of them about near-fateful encounters I’ve had with extremely dangerous species. The time, when I was wee, my mother St. Georged a water moccasin that had coiled beneath me on my swing (thanks, mom!). The time I crawled headfirst into a dark shaft beneath the Casa Grande domes without a headlamp and stopped – for no perceptible reason – with my face just inches short of a sleeping rattlesnake.* The time a different rattlesnake bit me on the foot as I waded through waist-high scrub in shorts while bush-running a string of small peaks in the San Bernardinos. Bruno Ganz’s admonition that “only double knots will last” may have saved my life there – or, at the very least, my leg – when the snake’s fangs got snarled in the twice-tied laces of my Asics.

I’ve handled snakes, let them lick my face, and even encircle my body (which reminds me of an elderly, white-afroed Black man I once saw sitting on a stool at Venice Beach, talking on his phone, encircled by three albino pythons; “No photos,” he told me). Deb Chachra and I once threw sleeping bags down in the dune sea that envelops the US-Mexico border near Yuma and slept under the Milky Way. The next morning, we saw evidence that at least one shovel-nosed snake (Chionactis annulata annulata? Chionactis occipitalis occipitalis?) had swum through the sand beneath us in the night, like a baby Shai-Hulud.

I won’t go on, but could.

I mention all of this because I have, while overturning figurative (and actual) rocks in the first few weeks of my PhD, somehow already been surprised by a snake – a fantastically huge one, undulating back through spacetime from the oil fields of eastern Oklahoma to the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (née Southern Death Cult) mounds of the New Madrid Seismic Zone, into penumbral prehistory, of the Early Woodland and even darker, deeper time. I’m supposed to be writing about Gravitational Minimalism for a seminar talk I’ll give in two weeks at University College Dublin, but all I really want to think about these days is snakes.

*Come to think of it, for years, every time I crawled into holes in the ground in the desert southwest I was confronted by sentinel serpents. A run of ill luck interrupted in one notable instance when a growling mountain lion inhabited the cave instead.