Thursday, December 25, 2008

365 Years of Isaac Newton

In a Letter to Roger Cotes, Cambridge mathematician who proofread second edition of the Principia, Newton is ambivalent about hypotheses:

'For anything which is not deduced from phenomena ought to be called a hypothesis, and hypotheses of this kind, whether metaphysical or physical, whether of occult qualities or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy. In this philosophy, propositions are deduced from phenomena, and afterward made general by induction…'

In Newton’s scientific system, induction, or the movement upward from observed phenomenon to general law, is highest status a proposition can attain. Before a proposition can make sublimation to law, it must be supported by proof derived from experiment. But before proof can be applied to an idea, there must be formulated proposition of that idea. Seems contrary then that a hypothesis should not be formed previous to experimentation. Newton’s resistance to hypotheses suggests that they are involved in a personalization of experiment, which might compromise the supposed objectivity of experiment. Newton would like to suggest it possible to get at truths from a position that is supra-lingual; that, by observation and experiment, the experimental scientist might work their way inward from phenomena through nebulous proposition(s) to axiomatic truth. In an earlier letter to Roger Oldenburg, original fellow at the Royal Society, Newton is less guarded about his philosophy:

'…For the best and safest method of philosophizing seems to be, first, to inquire diligently into the properties of things and to establish those properties by experiments, and to proceed later to hypotheses for the explanation of things themselves. For hypotheses ought to be applied only in the explanation of the properties of things, and not made use of in determining them; except in so far as they may furnish experiments. And if anyone offers conjectures about the truth of things from the mere possibility of hypotheses, I do not see by what stipulation anything certain can be determined in any science; since one or another set of hypotheses may always be devised which will appear to supply new difficulties. Hence I judged that one should abstain from contemplating hypotheses, as from improper argumentation…'

Although Newton keeps caveat that hypotheses may be useful in furnishing experiment, their epistemological status is nonetheless secondary to experiment in his scientific system. He would like to pretend that experiment might be possible without the pernicious fact of language. Certainly, Newton was not harboring the sort of polemical attitude to language in science that we find in somebody like Bruno Latour:

'In actual practice, one never travels directly from objects to words, from the referent to the sign, but always through a risky intermediary pathway.'

Newton’s faith in the enlightening wholeness and totality of the natural world would not permit such statement. But the surfacing of certain ambiguity and even arbitrariness regarding the import of symbols is another matter. As early as Locke, there is a challenge to the claim that linguistic symbols are essential to the referent they represent. Language is identified as socially constructed; non-inherent to the things it names. Taking as premise this configuration of language as external and essentially alien to the things it stands for, Newton’s other, less surveyed writings, especially on theology, align more compositely with his better-known scientific works. When his natural philosophy, as an attempt to prioritize objectivity in linguistic exchange, is applied in theological investigation, the substance of those investigations (i.e. the Bible) loses textual objectivity, or totality, and becomes open to as many permutations and complications as are active in the natural world that it is supposed to explain.

Fact of science is that it becomes a social construction the moment a phenomenon is observed. Language subsumes observation from that moment of observance until and through the (possible) sublimation of observation to law. The exegetic potential within any scientific law further suggests that language never releases phenomena after phenomena have been formatted through language to data and facts. I have folded a number of passages of Newton on Moses into one, from a letter to Thomas Burnet:

'As to Moses, I do not think his description of the creation either philosophical or feigned, but that he described realities in a language artificially adapted to the sense of the vulgar. Thus when he speaks of two great lights, I suppose he means their apparent, not real greatness. So when he tells us God placed these lights in the firmament, he speaks I suppose of their apparent, not real, place, his business being, not to correct the vulgar notions in matters philosophical, but to adapt a description of the creation as handsomely as he could to the sense and capacity of the vulgar… To describe [things] distinctly as they were in themselves would have made the narration tedious and confused, amused the vulgar, and become a philosopher more than a prophet... If it be said that the expression of making and setting two great lights in the firmament is more poetical than natural, so also are some other expressions of Moses, as when he tells us the windows or floodgates of heaven were opened (Genesis 7) and afterward stopped again (Genesis 8), and yet the things signified by such figurative expressions are not ideal or moral but true…'

Surrounding this argument on the fictive in Moses’ dyadic firmament, there is a lengthier discussion of the six days that it took to create the earth. Newton's six days are ideational, each assigned the sense of a day according to the thing created, in order to convey the notion of diurnal, developmental creation. Grammar is secondary to rhetoric. According to Newton, Moses is configuring his description of the creation of the universe to create a sense of aesthetic wholeness or continuity. The implication is that the textual objectivity of Moses as we receive it from the Bible is undercut by and not correlative to the natural objectivity of the universal process of creation. Moses’ rhetorical purpose receives primacy in Newton’s reading of him. Additionally, if we concede, as I suspect we must, to Newton the idiosyncrasy of his intellectual engagement, the probability that he is as heavily invested in the factuality of his reading of Moses as he is in the factuality of observations sublimated to scientific truth, we must assume that Newton arrived at his conclusion of Moses by means parallel to those used in scientific experiment.

In essence, it must be assumed that Newton submitted Moses to as much experimental rigor as was received by his theory of gravity or light. Moses too must be a conclusion from deduction to induction. Moses, too, has received the burden of experimentation. There is, however, no materiality to Moses. He is undeniably, in so far as he is concerned to Newton, an idea—-a rhetorical template placed by God—-by which Newton could extend his own understanding of the genesis and nature of the physical world. Between the theological and the scientific, the permeability is not defined as faith against fact. These are not spheres in conflict. Experimental capacity suffuses all manner of observation, especially when channeled through language. Moses’ sagacity, to Newton, is determined by his nimble manipulation of the amorphousness of language.

De Man on Locke:

''Abuse' of language is, of course, itself the name of a trope: catachresis. This is indeed how Locke describes mixed modes. They are capable of inventing the most fantastic entities by dint of the positional power inherent in language. They can dismember the texture of reality and reassemble it in the most capricious of ways, pairing man with woman or human being with beast in the most unnatural shapes. Something monstrous lurks in the most innocent of catachreses: when one speaks of the legs of the table or the face of the mountain, catachresis is already turning into prosopopeia, and one begins to perceive a world of potential ghosts and monsters. By elaborating his theory of language as a motion from simple ideas to mixed modes, Locke has deployed the entire fan-shape or (to remain within light imagery) the entire spectrum or rainbow of tropological totalization, the anamorphosis of tropes which has to run its full course whenever one engages, however reluctantly or tentaviely, the question of language as figure. In Locke, it began in the arbitrary, metonymic contiguity of word-sounds to their meanings, in which the word is a mere token in the service of the natural entity, and it concludes with the catachresis of mixed modes in which the word can be said to produce of and by itself the entity it signifies and that has no equivalence in nature. Locke condemns catachresis severely: 'he that hath IDEAS of substances disagreeing with the real existence of things, so far wants the materials of true knowledge in his understanding, and hath instead thereof CHIMERAS... He that thinks the CENTAUR stands for some real being, imposes on himself and mistkes words for things' (bk. 3, chap. 10, p. 104). But the condemnation, by Locke's own argument, now takes all language for its target, for at no point in the course of the demonstration can the empirical entity be sheltered from tropological defiguration. The ensuing situation is intolerable and makes the soothing conclusion of book 3, entitled 'Of the Remedies of the Foregoing Imperfections and Abuses [of Language],' into one of the least convincing sections of the Essay. One turns to the tradition engendered by Locke's work in the hope of finding some assistance out of the predicament.''

ie. Newton or, more dynamically, Newton through Edwards. More on this at some other point. This post is meant as tribute to the genius of Isaac Newton

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Polyphloisbos and Arnaut Daniel

Plato’s Cratylus deals at length with the original nature of some words. There are certain words which naturally surface like oxygen through the pool of language to the world. Some words actually do just come up from the ground like Holderlin’s flowers-—words that seem to embody their sense in their sound—-perfect, natural words. Pound’s proselytizing of Arnaut Daniel, troubadour, as the greatest poet that ever lived was premised on Daniel’s capacity to use these kinds of words with greatest range and ease.

An example from Homer: In the Illiad, phloisbos refers to the noise and confusion of battle. Elsewhere, in describing the sea, polyphloisbos is used for the sound of waves on the shore or on the fore of a ship. It channels the noise and confusion of a battle scene onto the crash of water against an object. Polyphloisbos is aggregate, percussive, embattled, confused and specific. It is the only word for the crash of water on a ship’s crest.

Additionally, it circles sonically on its percussive stresses. POlyPHLOisBOS: Crash/recession/surge/recession/final, conclusive 'B'-crash. It is sonically a wave against an object, surging and receding and returning with upshot. Listen to the way waves sound next time you are by a sea-beat, rocky shore. They SAY ‘polyphloisbos’

Poetry’s purpose, then, perhaps, is to improve our attention to the natural sound of our world through the language we use to consider that world. Arnaut Daniel is the greatest poet that ever lived if he is able to suffuse our grasp of the world with the feel of cleanliness and clarity in the sound of his language. His words make us better witnesses to the aural niceties of our world

See also Gavin Douglas, Pound’s translations of Daniel, and a number of passages from the Divine Comedy

Titus Flavius Vespasianus

Roman Emperor 69-79 AD noted for administrative and financial reforms that salvaged the empire from the critical state it was left in by Nero

Suetonius: 'Industrious, and the simplicity of his life was taken as model... He cultivated a bluff manner, characteristic of the humble origins he liked to recall. His initial appointments reflected his astuteness in building a powerful political party of which the core was his own family'

After the Year of the Four Emperors, the civil war, and the destruction of the capital by fire, the Roman republic was utterly baffled and beaten financially and psychically. Vespasian immediately supplied grain and granted pardon to those embroiled in Nero's excessive treason hunts. Brought sense along with grain. Said: 'I will not kill a dog that barks at me'

Vespasian headed massive public works projects to rehabilitate the republic, including the Colosseum and a Temple of Peace. Especially generous to men of letters and rhetoricians. Many authors speak suspiciously well of Vespasian. Reminds us that the key to history is endearment to its authors.

Last words were 'Væ, puto deus fio,' 'Shit, I think I'm becoming a god'

Monday, December 15, 2008

Flattened Time In Barry Lyndon, X

The ontological implications of aesthetic comport for Barry Lyndon transcend mere usage as model for character development. In confluence with the flattened portraiture of the film and a narrative tendency to flatten time as it is exhibited in the film, Barry Lyndon abides in a larger argument of synchronicity, or resonance, of existence.


If there are, still, tensions and climaxes in [certain films] which leave nothing to be desired as regards drama or tragedy, it is because, in the absence of traditional dramatic causality, the incidents in [these] films develop effects of analogy and echo. [A certain hero] never reaches the final crisis (which destroys him and saves him) by progressive dramatic linking but because the circumstances somehow or other affect him, build up inside him like the vibrant energy in a resonating body. He does not develop; he is transformed; overturning finally like an iceberg whose center of buoyancy has shifted unseen.

The duels, as I have described, echo each other and fold the film into a momentous singularity. The framing of narrative action around the imminence of events further flattens out the way we experience the film. It progresses but, as it seems to do so in a more vertical mode, it also holds still. From this peculiar axis, action happens, has happened and is about to happen at once. And rather than focus on the flux between past, present and forthcoming, the film focuses on synchronic fluxions and the flat presence of their occurrence. The epilogue reads:


All fluxions are compressed to one. With the same ideational totality by which the narrator is ubiquitous across time, the persons narrated in the story are equal upon the final account of the film. They are flattened in the hands of history. Like the 18c paintings that are the film’s aesthetic reference point, the film’s sense of history is of totality upon a canvas. All players are together and, taking account of the film’s narrative frame as premise for understanding history on a vertical axis of ubiquity, all players are carrying out their actions in perpetuity.

Barry Lyndon forces its viewer to experience film as painting: cinematographeum, ut pictora. But, beyond its handle on historical representation, the film’s sense of time suggests that history, as we experience it, is totalizing. By extension, we too become flattened in the hands of time, if we follow the argument of this film. Barry’s poetry, his aesthetic comport, becomes pictorial. And portraiture, by its subsuming presence in the lives of the film’s personages, seeps into the poetry of these people.

I will finish my account of the film with the same integrity to ambiguity, which characterizes Bazin’s more compelling writings. The film seems to be an effort to mediate an interface between time and aesthetic. Its aesthetic, its poetry, becomes contra-chronological. It is a poetry that, by its peculiar alignment with portraiture, becomes contra-poetic. And its portraiture becomes, by the sheer diachronic nature of film, spread into time like measured, poetic verse. Whether or not Barry Lyndon indeed resolves the epistemic rift between painting and poetry—-whether or not film could serve in the capacity of an aesthetic meeting point between these two, ancient rivals—-is a crucial question which I note without resolving.

Flattened Time In Barry Lyndon, IX

Proper aesthetic comport is structurally determined by the relative amount of positive alignment of a character to a shared, social mode. Barry’s success with Lady Lyndon is measurable by his capacity to apply a courtly manner to situations necessitating it and to transcend that manner when needed. There is a certain daring and disregard when Barry and Lady Lyndon are walking together in a courtyard, soon after their initial meeting, and they step together over a partition of lawn. All other people in the scene are definitely on the designed paths. Barry and Lady Lyndon are together carrying courtliness beyond its said limits. Like Lady Lyndon, when she brings the Schubert out with her onto the balcony, they carry their courtliness inside them. They embody it, in so far as they have made its aesthetic system their ostensibly natural system.

Barry elsewhere carries more courtliness than members of an aristocratic hierarchy who, presumably, should more naturally bear that aesthetic inside them. The duel scenes are an example of this. In both scenes, but especially in the latter, Barry, the “insolent Irish upstart, [of] lowness [of] birth and general brutality of manners... this lowbred ruffian,” as Bullingdon describes him, exhibits greater stamina and sprezzatura than Bullingdon, who, due to the nobility of his birth, should be calmer and more in control. As Bullingdon vomits and trembles in terror, Barry stares unabatedly at his opponent. Barry takes his opponent’s shot without a shake of insecurity. He is, in short, more courtly and aesthetically in keeping with the measure of the situation. The quality of certain manners is completely subsumed into and sensible by the extent of those manners’ alignment to an aesthetic exhibition. Barry simply looks better in his station than Bullingdon. And Barry’s capacity for comport is qualitatively natural: He exhibited as much relative stamina and sprezzatura in his first duel with Quin.

There is, however, a quantitative growth, or cultivation, of this natural capacity as the film progresses. Barry enters the Prussian army because he was idiotic about the extent to which he could manipulate his comport and language to his benefit. He oversteps his aesthetic, pretending to Captain Potzdorf that the British Ambassador in Berlin is his uncle, with the preposterous name of O’Grady, even going so far as to offer the Captain a letter of introduction, and further describes the English king and his ministers as if he were intimate with them. Potzdorf thus determines that Barry is an imposter and a deserter. And Barry must consequently volunteer for the Prussian army to save himself from prison. In this capacity, he saves Potzdorf’s life and is awarded two Frederic d’or as the Colonel says to him:

Corporal Barry, you're a gallant soldier, and evidently have come of good stock but you're idle and unprincipled. You're a bad influence on the men. And for all your bravery, I'm sure you'll come to no good.

At which Barry replies:

I hope the Colonel is mistaken regarding my character. I have fallen into bad company, it is true, but I've only done as other soldiers have. And, above all, I've never had a kind protector before to show that I was worthy of better things. The Colonel may say I'm a ruined lad, and send me to the Devil. But, be sure of this, I would go to the Devil to serve the Regiment.

Barry has gone from ostentatious fabrication to artful manipulation. His lies have become more artfully absorbed into his language. The plane of Barry’s falsity could be described as less bulging, less adjunct, and its smoothness more ingratiating to Potzdorf, who soon commissions Barry to the capacity of prevaricator and fabricator, as a counter-spy in the city of Berlin. Barry’s equivocation is nearly flawless as he machinates a counter-counter-espionage, by revealing himself to and collaborating with the Chevalier de Balibari. There is a sense that Barry is determining a character that has always been within him. Bazin on this kind of character development:

As for the characters themselves, they exist and change only in reference to a purely internal kind of time… Let us not say that the transformation of the characters takes place at the level of the “soul.” But it has at least to occur at that depth of their being into which consciousness only occasionally reaches down. This does not mean at the level of the unconscious or the subconscious but rather the level on which Jean-Paul Sartre calls the “basic project” obtains, the level of ontology. Thus [this type] of character does not evolve; he ripens or at the most becomes transformed…

Bazin indexes this kind of characterization by its ‘vertical gravity,’ as opposed to a development by ‘horizontal causality.’ Barry’s growth comes from a character that rises upward from inside him. In regard to character development in relative alignment to the situational mandates of the film, this film’s character development is horizontally flattened and contained. Barry’s cultivation of character contained within him is the ontic measure by which I identify aesthetic comport. His being comes to be by a bringing forth through aesthetically structured behavior. And it is more distinguished in Barry because he seems to be the only personage in the film that conscientiously cultivates and applies his aesthetic comport. I have already discussed this in regard to the determined posture he assumes in his courting of Lady Lyndon.

Letter to Anita McBride, Assistant to George W. Bush and Chief of Staff to Laura Bush

"Why did an Iraqi journalist throw his shoe at George Bush? Is our president so little respected in that land to which he fancies himself liberator? What could he possibly do between now and his departure to disprove the preponderant moronic presence that he has projected to the world?"

Not the first letter I've written to the White House. They have, as one might suspect, never responded to any of my queries.

Flattened Time In Barry Lyndon, VIII

Andre Bazin (1918-58)

An Aesthetic of Reality: "The dramatic role played by the marsh is due in great measure to deliberately intended qualities in the photography. This is why the horizon is always at the same height. Maintaining the same proportions between water and sky in every shot brings out one of the basic characteristics of this landscape. It is the exact equivalent, under conditions imposed by the screen, of the inner feeling men experience who are living between the sky and the water and whose lives are at the mercy of an infinitesimal shift of angle in relation to the horizon. This shows how much subtlety of expression can be got on exteriors from a camera in the hands of the man who photographed Paisa."

An Aesthetic of Reality: "The construction introduces an obviously abstract element into reality. Because we are so used to such abstractions, we no longer sense them. Orson Welles started a revolution by systematically employing a depth of focus that had so far not been used. Whereas the camera lens, classically, had focused successively on different parts of the scene, the camera of Orson Welles takes in with equal sharpness the whole field of vision contained simultaneously within the dramatic field. It is no longer the editing that selects what we see, thus giving it an a priori significance, it is the mind of the spectator which is forced to discern, as in a sort of parallelepiped of reality with the screen as its cross section, the dramatic spectrum proper to the scene… “ The flattened axis of reduced depth becomes a three-dimensional figure by the manner in which it is received by the viewer. It is given intellectual dynamic and depth by the absorption (the viewer’s projection) of psychological impact into the scene.

An Aesthetic of Reality: "Thus, the most realistic of the arts… cannot make reality entirely its own because reality must inevitably elude it at some point. Undoubtedly an improved technique, skillfully applied, may narrow the holes of the net, but one is compelled to choose between one kind of reality and another. Future technical improvement [ ] will permit the conquest of the properties of the real (color and stereoscopy for example)… The quality of the interior shots will in fact increasingly depend on a complex delicate and cumbersome apparatus. Some measure of reality must always be sacrificed in the effort of achieving it." Bazin’s negative corollary to realism is metaphysical. Reality is compromised by the surrealism of equipment. At the opposite end, I would add that reality is further compromised by oversaturation possible with certain photographic apparatuses, such as the Zeiss lens.

Cabiria: "As for the characters themselves, they exist and change only in reference to a purely internal kind of time… Let us not say that the transformation of the characters takes place at the level of the “soul.” But it has at least to occur at that depth of their being into which consciousness only occasionally reaches down. This does not mean at the level of the unconscious or the subconscious but rather the level on which Jean-Paul Sartre calls the “basic project” obtains, the level of ontology. Thus [this type] of character does not evolve; he ripens or at the most becomes transformed..."

Cabiria: "If there are, still, tensions and climaxes in [certain films] which leave nothing to be desired as regards drama or tragedy, it is because, in the absence of traditional dramatic causality, the incidents in [these] films develop effects of analogy and echo. [A certain hero] never reaches the final crisis (which destroys him and saves him) by progressive dramatic linking but because the circumstances somehow or other affect him, build up inside him like the vibrant energy in a resonating body. He does not develop; he is transformed; overturning finally like an iceberg whose center of buoyancy has shifted unseen."

Friday, December 12, 2008

Flattened Time In Barry Lyndon, VII

Toole, Farmer Poet, later wed to Brown Bess
Born Owenbeg, later renamed County Sligo, c. 1727

Died 1763, of excessive hemorrhaging after a fall
from the seaward slopes at Mullaghmore


Potter Tim said to me
Toole, I’m told by more than two

That your wiles don’t take too well
w/your wife, g’bless her,

so that she beats you
behind shutters after the pig’s been put to rest

Toole, tell me, is it not untrue your woman
Keeps hours w/a jab on your head?

G’bless her soul, I said,
And gave him one as hard as any she ever did


An egg-sucking dog saw me coming down the road
And said to me, Toole,

How fared your chickens
This winter’s cold? How stands the grand Toole’s estate?

I said to him, scoundrel, you keep off my coop
If you want some eggs,

I’ve got a pair here for you—
Before my woman came out to slog me

Again for discussing our chickens w/a dog


What good’s a day w/o a dreg of grog?
No pig’s kept from his mud

No duck from the pond
Give me what I love and leave Toole to Toole's love


Poor Cow—the cost to keep you
Now outweights the worth of your return

In ground chuck—what’s loneliness, hard luck,
Trouble, disease or disgust

Compounded against you now?
What amount of worry could compare

To the crude stupidity in a happy calf’s heart?
The lodge of life in your lung

Is a summer apart from a bowl of stodge—
And I cannot particularly complain, I will prepare

You w/a potato and some grog—the Earth
Gives us so much—Poor Cow


Toole’s bag of flesh and bone
Has no need of any salve

Give me a dreg and a pig’s foot
And you’ll see me as soon afoot on the field

Toole, appearing in Barry Lyndon:

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Flattened Time In Barry Lyndon, VI

To transition from pace by using pace to describe the uses of aesthetic comport in the film, I will briefly read what I understand to be the central moment in the film. Despite the bulky presence that Handel’s Sarabande has in the film, as the main title, end title, and motif title for the duels, I would argue that it is not the central musical composition. The central moment in Barry’s adventure is his successful courting of Lady Lyndon. It, in effect, changes his life. And the entirety of Barry’s seduction happens in less than four minutes:

The action moves rapidly but unhurriedly from one moment to the next, as Barry and Lady Lyndon are in a gambling room, exchanging one bet and the next. The camera lingers on Barry’s staring at Lady Lyndon and on her staring back at him catching her gaze and the two staring at each other. Schubert’s Piano Trio in E-flat builds in the background, under the sound of gambling chips clinking, as if the music were playing there, in the film, in the background. The scene and its players are measured by the music and we must presume that they sense this measure, if they can hear the score. Lady Lyndon departs for a breath of air, the camera cuts to her, walking outside, in rhythmic step with the beat of the composition. She has taken the harmonious integration of sonic experience in the gambling hall outside with her. It is carried like a metaphorical object from the actual world into the ideational world. She, by consequence, becomes less objective, or real, and enters, in her exeunt moment, an ontological zone of aesthetic mediation. She makes her way across the balcony, to a columned perimeter and stops to stare into a courtyard. She, again, has an empty, oiled look in her eyes, until she senses somebody behind her, and her eyes turn downward and to her right.

We see Barry through the window and he definitely pauses before exiting. He is, presumably, considering his actions. Barry exits the mansion and enters the aesthetic space of mediation carried onto the balcony by Lady Lyndon. We hear Barry’s heels clicking on the balcony floor and they are just outside the beat of the music. Barry, it would seem, is making the effort to align himself with the sonic steadiness of the moment’s aesthetic unfolding. His effort belies a surreptitious intent. His attraction is not entirely natural. He has absorbed rhythm to the extent that he is evidently manipulating it. He is following the pace. He approaches Lady Lyndon with unlocking gaze. She turns and there is no question of intent on either part. As Barry takes Lady Lyndon’s hand into his, there is no surprise. They are already romantically destined and we are instead more intently watching the grace of their courtship—-the steadily unfolding strokes of their romance. Pace presupposes upshot. Schubert, the Romantic aesthete that surges from the music of Schubert, has prepared the requisites of passion. In so far as Barry’s mettle is able to meet the demand of the aesthetic, Barry is able, by his sheer energy and volition, to successfully court Lady Lyndon and move himself into a higher sphere of society than that which circumstance had previously afforded him. Barry, by his successful alignment of character to aesthetic pace, or what I will term aesthetic comport, creates a gravitational pull by which he is able to draw Lady Lyndon into his orbit. Gravity is mediated by aesthetic. Comport is the key to society.

Flattened Time In Barry Lyndon, V

In an interview with Michel Ciment for L’Express, Stanley Kubrick said the following regarding his preparation for Barry Lyndon:

On Barry Lyndon, I accumulated a very large picture file of drawings and paintings taken from art books. These pictures served as the reference for everything we needed to make -- clothes, furniture, hand props, architecture, vehicles, etc. Unfortunately, the pictures would have been too awkward to use while they were still in the books, and I'm afraid we finally had very guiltily to tear up a lot of beautiful art books. They were all, fortunately, still in print, which made it seem a little less sinful. Good research is an absolute necessity and I enjoy doing it. You have an important reason to study a subject in much greater depth than you would ever have done otherwise, and then you have the satisfaction of putting the knowledge to immediate good use.

The background of the film as extensively incorporates a matrix of pictures of paintings as it does the novel by Thackeray. Kubrick tore scenes from European painting and reconfigured them to film. And the most immediate evocation of portraiture in the film is the sheer painted look of many scenes. As I have previously described, the Zeiss lens, adapted to the cinema camera, allowed Kubrick to emulate, by candlelight and dull light streaming through windows, the reduced depth of field, and subdued strength of light, in paintings by Caravaggio and the followers of his chiaroscuro, which include the Utrecht Caravaggisti (Gerrit van Honthorst, Hendrick Terbrugghen, et al.), who would later influence Gerard Dou and, more importantly, Vermeer, but also Georges de La Tour.

The Caravaggisti scenes in Barry Lyndon include the candlelit gambling sessions, Barry’s card game with Nora, his meeting in the tent with Captain Grogan, his seductive dinner with Lischen, the lonely German mother, his initial and ill-fated evening with Captain Potzdorf, in addition to a number scenes in Barryville and at Lady Lyndon’s castle, etc. In these scenes, there is scarcely an abrupt movement. Although they breathe with dialogue and exposition, that breath is never heaved. The still, muted effect is emphasized in a scene where, just after Lady Lyndon catches Barry in the garden with one of her maids, she is shown in her tub, half-naked and in an immobile stupor. Her body and face shine dully with an oiled stillness. She stares blankly through some unknown thought. The camera pulls away and she does not move. We are looking at an embodiment of flat elegance—-of painting. She is elsewhere described by the narrator as occupying a place “not very much more important than the elegant carpets and pictures, which would form the pleasant background of [Barry’s] existence.” Her muteness does not exactly register as intelligible dullness. She is rather subsumed into the film’s flatness of field. The field, as I have previously said, suggests a certain emotive corollary to a psychological register of flatness. Like the troubled scene in Balzac’s Unknown Masterpiece, the personhood of subject is lost in the reverie of portraiture. Lady Lyndon lives and breathes, and is fundamentally engaged in the actions of the film, but simultaneously absorbed in the portraiture of scenes, as flat as the frozen moment in which we see Barry depart into his carriage.

Flattened Time in Barry Lyndon, IV

There is one moment in the entire movie where the life of the camera, its constant moving from one place to another, its recording of the movement of others even as it stands still, cedes to complete cellular motionlessness. Just after Barry’s leg has been amputated and he has lost all claim to society, lost even his only son, is embroiled in outstanding debts, and is “utterly baffled and beaten,” as the narrator describes him, there is a shot of Lyndon, climbing with his crutches into a carriage, that freezes for about five seconds. The dead shot is not so much a reminder of the still photographic genealogy of film, as it is an illustration of the still, unmovable state of what we can only imagine to be Lyndon’s decimated psyche. The entirety of the film has been motivated by his energy, his volition, his course across Europe and history and now, for five awkward seconds, the viewer is forced to stare at a figure so wrecked that the camera, who has accompanied his lively course throughout, emulates what we can only suspect he is sensing: the silence and stillness of his own decimation--something like Wordsworth's 'still, sad music of humanity.' The entirety of his past is implicit in this consequential moment, in addition to the totality of his future, as the narrator says:

Sometime after, he traveled to the continent. His life there, we have not the means of following accurately. But he appears to have resumed his former profession of a gambler, without his former success. He never saw Lady Lyndon again.

We are receiving information about Barry’s future in the past tense. These actions are already all completed. In this moment of stillness, Lyndon is everything he had ever been and would be. There is no historical depth yet we are staring for five seconds at a character destroyed by history. In the same manner that he has half his body in and the other half out of the carriage, he is both within consequence and without. We stare at him in this moment with a complete psychological grasp that is parallel to the singular momentous gaze by which we absorb a painting. I will return at some point to the narrator’s role in this, but will depart here to the resonance that this deep, psychological flatness has with the look of the film, determined by an instrument, the Zeiss lens, which reduces visual depth throughout the entire film. The psychological flatness of the film’s frozen moment is not only premised by a consistent visual field of total absorption, but that absorption additionally subsumes the psychological flatness into itself, creating a number of scenes that are striking, if only because they seem to embody a certain, still, silent human expression.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Flattened Time In Barry Lyndon, III

Lyndon and 18c Painting, by Marco Garcia, University of Malaga

Monday, December 8, 2008

Flattened Time In Barry Lyndon, II

In a conflation of diachronic film techniques and a certain material composition, which emphasizes the static totality of the screen, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon could be described as an aesthetic experiment of painting time. In similar spirit to Horace’s ut pictora, poesis, the film hovers around a theoretical platform that could be articulated as something like ut pictora, cinematographeum.

It is widely known that the film looks very painterly, especially due to the use of a Zeiss lens developed for NASA satellites, which was designed to capture light at higher speeds and thus reduce depth in perspective and flatten out clarity in low-lit scenes. This, at least, is what Stanley Kubrick used the lens for.

There would not be enough theoretical heft to suggest that the use of such a lens characterizes the film for its pictorial quality if it were only the use of this lens working out the flatness of the film. There are various aspects of Barry Lyndon’s technical structure that broaden the sense of flatness beyond its lush look. It is not just the look, but look, in addition to narrative structure, characterization of players, and the film’s implicit argument on history that compound to flatten the film at various, technical axes. The complete axial platform of flatness not only requires, indeed coerces, the viewer to experience this film as if it were a painting. The totality, or completed feel, inherent to film, furthers this sense of a finished, polished plane.

This sense, however, is conflicted by the insistent narrative that is correlative to, and pulled forward by, actions in sequence. It is as if the film were trying to reconcile the rift between painting and poetry, identified by Plato and expounded by Lessing. Poetry is complicit to time because it is read through time, whereas painting is experienced in a moment. The peculiarity of film, and what Barry Lyndon most elegantly suggests, is that film is a medium engaged in the marriage of these once, irremediable, opposing axes. In film, this conflict becomes the combustibility at its core. The life of Kubrick’s film, furthermore, is invested in articulating a structure that permits these two engines to simultaneously alternate and work against each other, to the benefit of the viewer.

I do not believe that any work of art could ever attain totality. There is indeed too much in the world as we experience it for that. Totality as it is registered in film, on the other hand, is ideational. Films always feel finished. There is enough evidence to suggest that this feeling is actively and aggressively stimulated in Barry Lyndon from beginning to end; so much so that beginning and end are squeezed into a synchronic sense of existence. The dynamic nature of that sense is catalyzed by the contrary, deep historicity of the film and the sheer narrative structure, which repeatedly continues to evoke flatness: a flatness of scene, a flatness of narrative, a flatness of time, a flatness of history that culminates, in so far as a flat thing can culminate, in a democratization of all terms, platitudes, and players. Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, nee Redmond Barry, is perhaps the most ostentatious representation of democracy in technique, and totality in film, that has yet been seen.


It's been said that Dante Gabriel Rossetti was sent to earth to translate Dante Alighieri, and, had he lived longer than his lot allocated for him, he would've gotten past the New Life to give English the greatest Comedy it could have hoped for.

It's likely that gravity is a thing we get only with age. Presumably, the sun is elder to its circling spheres. Rossetti was just old enough to get the feeling of the New Life, but sometimes I think he'd have botched the Comedy had he approached it. I think him just shy of the gravity for Villon

He was half-sent to Earth to translate Dante, and half-trained from infancy by his father for that task; Villon, to him, would've seemed a beast. Rossetti was quite outside his orbit

In any manner, every first snow of the Winter, I'm reminded of this poem, in Rossetti's English, but I remember it differently. 'But where...' strikes me overly plaintive; I think it better as 'and where...' Additionally the 'but' throws a harsh 'b' in there that the 'and' doesn't, plus the 'and' keeps the sound above the surface. Another pad on that pool that I've inserted is the 'all' in that line

Villon was a criminal. He had no time for plaintive bemusings. I've made a few other improvements. This is the poem for snowfalls


François Villon (1431-1489)

TELL me now in what hidden way is
Lady Flora the lovely Roman?
Where's Hipparchia, and where Thais,
Neither of them the fairer woman?
Where is Echo, beheld of no man,
Only heard on river and mere,--
She whose beauty was more than human? . . .
AND where are all the snows of yester-year?

Where's Héloise, the learned nun,
For whose sake Abeillard, I ween,
Lost manhood and put priesthood on?
(From Love he won such dule and teen!)
And where, I pray you, is the Queen
Who willed that Buridan should steer
Sewed in a sack's mouth down the Seine? . . .
AND where are all the snows of yester-year?

White Queen Blanche, like a queen of lily,
With a voice like any mermaiden,--
Bertha Broadfoot, Beatrice, Aly,
And Ermengarde the lady of Maine,--
And that good Joan whom Englishmen
At Rouen doomed and burned,--
Mother of God, where are they then? . . .
AND where are all the snows of yester-year?

Nay, never ask this week, fair lord,
Where they are gone, nor yet this year,
Save with this much for an overword,--
AND where are all the snows of yester-year?

Frankie Villon

Flattened Time In Barry Lyndon

In a conflation of film and material composition, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon could be described as an aesthetic experiment of painting time. In similar spirit to Horace’s ut pictora, poesis, the film hovers around a theoretical platform that could be articulated as something like ut pictora, cinematographeum. Kubrick frames sequences in such a way that the imminence of an event is repeatedly dramatized—flattening out the action by emphasizing imminence over outcome. Everything has already happened in the film and we are watching depictions. The narrator tells the viewer that something is about to happen and, as the action moves unhurriedly toward that event, the imminence of the event suffuses, slows and beautifies the scene. It is, in sum, an aesthetic mode characterized by portraiture. This is accomplished by a narrator repeatedly suggesting what is about to happen (affording the viewer a sense of totality—in that the narrator already knows the entire story), by the sluggish movement toward the upshot of sequences (focusing attention on the imminence of the impending outcome of a sequence), and by the sheer, oiled, elegantly still look of the film. The viewer is, in a sense, constantly waiting for the film to come to life.

Throughout Barry Lyndon, the narrator alludes to the notion that he knows what is going to happen because it has already happened. He dramatizes impending action to the viewer with phrases such as, “fate did not intend that he should remain long in the service and an accident occurred which took him out of the service in a rather singular manner,” just before Barry steals Lt. Jonathan Fakenham’s outfit and enters Prussia. Elsewhere: “He had for some time now ingratiated himself considerably with Captain Potzdorf, whose confidence in him was about to bring its reward,” just before he is put into the service of the Chevalier de Balibari. And: “There is many a man who would not understand the cause of the burst of feeling that was now about to take place,” just before Barry reveals his identity to the Chevalier, initiating the relationship that would shape his career as a professional gambler. The action is not happening as we watch the film. It has already happened and is rather being depicted for the viewer. The narrator knows the entire story. The implication for the film’s sense of time is that it is a closed phenomenon. Such totality suggests that the entire story is already spread out and complete, like a finished painting happening in front of our eyes.

Having constructed a narrative frame that focuses attention on the finished totality of the film’s sequences and on the film as a whole, Kubrick highlights this flatness in time by showing actions moving unhurriedly toward an outcome. The lengthy duel scenes are less concerned with the outcome of the pistol shots than with the procedural tedium and elegant posture of the events. We see this in the gambling scenes as well. The action moves unhurriedly from one bet to the next, focusing instead on Barry’s staring at Lady Lyndon and on her staring back at Barry and on Barry catching her gaze and the two staring at each other. When Barry steps outside to meet Lady Lyndon on the balcony, neither says anything to the other. At a certain (meta-) register, it is unnecessary: They are already together and we are instead more intently watching the grace of their courtship, the steadily unfolding strokes of their romance. The robust textures of the film’s sequences surface from delay and detail to manner. The imminence of outcomes is nearly palpable and trumps the importance of narrative timeliness. We are encouraged to watch slowly—to experience the film as we might a painting.

Another quality of the film that immediately evokes portraiture is the sheer painted look of many scenes. After Lady Lyndon catches Barry in the garden with one of her maids, she is shown in her tub, half-naked and in a kind of stupor. Her body and face shine softly with an oiled stillness. The camera pulls away and she does not move. We are literally looking at an embodiment of flat elegance, of painting. She is elsewhere described by the narrator as occupying a place “not very much more important than the elegant carpets and pictures which would form the pleasant background of [Barry’s] existence.” And, beyond the almost explicit portraiture of Lady Lyndon, the film constantly hangs on painterly expanses, from the idyllic field where Barry’s father is killed to the lush lakes around the Countess of Lyndon’s castle. In many of these scenes there is a lack of visible differentiation in detail between the foreground and the back—a lack of depth—which is literally a flattening of the visual field.

Outside of the painted look of the film and its framing of narrative action around the imminence of events (thus flattening time), flatness in Barry Lyndon inhabits a greater, ontological argument. The epilogue reads:


In the same scope that the narrator is ubiquitous across the time, the persons narrated in the story are equal upon the final account of the film. They are flattened in the hands of history. Much like the scenes of the 18c European paintings that are the film’s aesthetic reference point, the film’s sense of history is of a totality upon canvas. All players are together now and, taking account of the film’s narrative frame as premise for understanding history on an axis of ubiquitous presence, all players are carrying out their action in perpetuity. Or, rather, given the film’s insistence upon the import of imminence over upshot, all players are perpetually about to be embroiled in action. Beauty and grace in each player’s portrait surface instead from attention to detail and manner before impending, inevitable ends.