The other day, I had a good example of one sort of liminal thinking that goes on when you’re not actually doing any proper thinking, and which for quite long periods seems to do the duty of proper thinking.
I’ve been reading Crashed, Adam Tooze’s… I guess ‘monumental’ is the only word?… history of the Global Financial Crisis and its consequences. On the tube going into work I read this sentence:
In the general crisis of legitimacy in 2010–2011 there was no Archimedean point. There was no place to stand above the fray.Tooze, Adam. Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World (p. 398). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
Although the general importance of the point about a crisis of legitimacy and the undermining of technocratic principles was of interest, the phrase ‘Archimedean point’ burned vividly and resulted in a tessellation of thoughts and references unfolding back out across recent experience.
This phrase describing the notional point of distance from the Earth one would need to stand to lever (move or weigh) it, is used in a Richard Eberhart 1947 poem ‘Mysticism Has Not the Patience to Wait for God’s Revelation’ – Kierkegaard.
I first heard not read the poem listening to Geoffrey Hill’s extremely enjoyable Oxford lectures when he was Professor of Poetry there. This reading from the 2012 Michaelmas term lecture, Fields of Force.
That poem contains a line that had been much in my head over the emotional landscape of last couple of years:
All the flowers of the heart turn to ice flowers
But the line is not as such Eberhart’s, exactly. It is in fact, as Hill makes clear, a line from a Søren Kierkegaard journal entry of 1837, translated by Alexander Dru for an English selection of the journals published in 1938. And in fact the original translation is ‘All the flowers of my heart turn to ice flowers’. In the original Swedish:
Enhver mit Hjertes Blomst bliver til en Iisblomst
This is translated in the Indiana University Press edition of the complete Journals (by Edna and Howard Hong), as Every flower of my heart turns into a frost flower. That’s an odd choice. Iisblomst seems better represented both in terms of image and rhythm by ‘ice flower’. And regardless the form ‘all the flowers of the heart turn to ice flowers’ had become symbolic to me of the emotional landscape I had been inhabiting.
I had in fact already been reminded of it very recently reading a good piece on Petrarch in the London Review of Books.
A series of puns in Canzoniere 239 begins conventionally with ‘dolce l’aura al tempo novo’ (‘the sweet breeze in springtime’); then becomes rather weirder, ‘col bue zoppo andrem cacciando l’aura’ (‘with a lame ox we will go hunting the breeze’); and finally arrives at one of those lines of pure lyric dynamite that lurk throughout the collection: ‘in rete accolgo l’aura e ’n ghiaccio i fiori’ (‘in a net I gather the breeze and in the ice flowers’).Nicholl, Charles. “On the Sixth Day.” Rev. of Petrarch: Everywhere a Wanderer, by Christopher Celenza. London Review of Books
41.3 (2019): 23-26. 9 Mar. 2019 <https://www.lrb.co.uk/v41/n03/charles-nicholl/on-the-sixth-day>.
‘Ice flowers’ as a fragment of this significant emotional symbol caused me to look up from the article and stare out of the window for a while. This meant that I didn’t notice what I should have noticed, even with my rudimentary Italian, and supposed better English poetic parsing, that ‘ice flowers’ is not here a noun phrase. I must have noticed something was amiss because I haplessly reverse logicked it and decided I quite liked the odd way – disconcerting, slightly haunting – ‘ice flowers’ didn’t have a referent, unless perhaps it was breeze.
‘In a net I gather the breeze and in the ice, flowers’ is the meaning, and no matter the fluidity of the original medieval Italian, probably needs that comma.
But I do not think I would have noticed the phrase had that comma, that small humanist innovation just post-dating Petrarch, been present.
Woolgathering. Carding the wool of language and thought. The processing that takes place beneath thought. An underground emotional shuttling of data and information around our hidden frames of reference, from digitally recorded lectures (incomplete), to translation decisions and the poetry of language, and half-noticed phrases leaping by association to others. From the tube in March 2019, through to the Eurozone Crisis of 2010-2012, to a notional point in the cosmos from which you can shift the Earth itself, posited by a 3rd Century BC Sicilian, to Geoffrey Hill in Oxford in 2012, to Eberhart in Boston in 1947 working at his wife’s father’s floor wax company in the aftermath of the war, to the graduate Kierkegaard in Copenhagen 1837 at the beginnings of his relationship with Regine Olsen, to the publishing almost a century later of Alexander Dru’s 1938 translation, to my front room a couple of weeks beforehand reading the LRB, then whirling back to trecento Italy, and Petrarch’s infatuation for ‘Laura’, the path strewn, like breadcrumbs in the forest, with the flowers of the heart.
[This too-lyrical ending was not how I had intended to finish this – I got carried away and decided to let it stand, on the suggested basis that in one view, no matter the cognitive and neurochemical processes, the vehicle for these transactions is feeling and emotion.
However, the word jumped into my mind when considering this process was ‘cachinnation’, and no matter how much I tried to banish it on the grounds of meaning, it insisted on its relevance. It is the background mocking laughter to our thought, a distant ghost transmission from before Babel, like background radiation, a laughter which gives this blog its name – diasyrmus – and whose sigil is the goat.]
"Mysticism Has Not the Patience to Wait for God's Revelation"
But to reach the Archimedean point
Was all my steadfastness;
The disjointed times to teach
Courage from what is dreadful.
It was the glimpses in the lightning
Made me a sage, but made me say
No word to make another fight,
My own fighting heart full of dismay.
Spirit, soul, and fire are reached!
And springs of the mind, like springs of the feet
Tell all, all know, nothing wavers there!
All the flowers of the heart turn to ice-flowers,
Heaviness of the world prevailing
("The higher we go the more terrible it is")
Duplicity of man, heart-hate,
The hypocrite, the vain, the whipper, the cheat,
The eternal ape on the leash,
Drawing us down to faith,
Which the Greeks call divine folly,
The tug of laughter and of irony.
from Burr Oaks (1947), by Richard Eberhart
2 thoughts on “Woolgathering”
Just listening to Geoffrey Hill’s lecture, so I’m grateful to you for posting Eberhart’s poem (the only posting of that poem on the web, as far as I can tell). Also very much enjoyed reading your essay. I will have a look at Tooze’s Crashed. The only other place I’ve seen the word “cachinnation” is in the first stanza of the poem “Mozart, 1935” by Wallace Stevens.
Yes, it’s not easy to find, so glad to provide that service at least and also glad you enjoyed what the necessarily rather attenuated post!