Posted by: glue | July 4, 2010

Lord Chandos

One of the defining documents of Modernism, Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s “Letter of Lord Chandos,” (1902) provides context for the figural method tested in our blogging of the disaster.  The import of the fictional letter concerns the paradigm shift in the status of language in modernism, from classical reference to semiotic (arbitrary) relations.  The immediate relevance for us is engagement with dimensions of experience that exceed the reach of language or discourse.  The task of flash reason is to develop an image metaphysics that ontologizes this register of experience.  Flash reason supports collective epiphany.

Extimacy

It is not easy for me to indicate wherein these good moments subsist; once again words desert me. For it is, indeed, something entirely un­named, even barely nameable which, at such moments, re­veals itself to me, filling like a vessel any casual object of my daily surroundings with an overflowing flood of higher life. I cannot expect you to understand me without examples, and I must plead your indulgence for their absurdity. A pitcher, a harrow abandoned in a field, a dog in the sun, a neglected cemetery, a cripple, a peasant’s hut-all these can become the vessel of my revelation. Each of these objects and a thousand others similar, over which the eye usually glides with a natural indifference, can suddenly, at any moment (which I am ut­terly powerless to evoke), assume for me a character so exalted and moving that words seem too poor to describe it. Even the distinct image of an absent object, in fact, can acquire the mysterious function of being filled to the brim with this silent but suddenly rising flood of divine sensation. Recently, for instance, I had given the order for a copious supply of rat-poison to be scattered in the milk cellars of one of my dairy-farms. Towards evening I had gone off for a ride and, as you can imagine, thought no more about it. As I was trotting along over the freshly-ploughed land, nothing more alarming in sight than a scared covey of quail and, in the distance, the great sun sinking over the undulating fields, there suddenly loomed up before me the vision of that cellar, resounding with the death-struggle of a mob of rats. I felt everything within me: the cool, musty air of the cellar filled with the sweet and pungent reek of poison, and the yelling of the death cries breaking against the mouldering walls; the vain convulsions of those convoluted bodies as they tear about in confusion and despair; their frenzied search for escape, and the grimace of icy rage when a couple collide with one an­other at a blocked-up crevice. But why seek again for words which I have foresworn! You remember, my friend, the won­derful description in Livy of the hours preceding the destruc­tion of Alba Longa: when the crowds stray aimlessly through the streets which they are to see no more . . . when they bid farewell to the stones beneath their feet. I assure you, my friend, I carried this vision within me, and the vision of burning Carthage, too; but there was more, something more divine, more bestial; and it was the Present, the fullest, most exalted Present. There was a mother, surrounded by her young in their agony of death; but her gaze was cast neither toward the dying nor upon the merciless walls of stone, but into the void, or through the void into Infinity, accompanying this gaze with a gnashing of teeth!-A slave struck with help­less terror standing near the petrifying Niobe must have ex­perienced what I experienced when, within me, the soul of this animal bared its teeth to its monstrous fate (Hofmannsthal, Lord Chandos Letter).

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Responses

  1. Physiognomic Modalities

    Arthur Koestler, in his study of creativity, divided emotional relations with the external world into two modes: self-assertion & self-transcendence; or, aggression & participation. Laughter & lyric; joke & epiphany. Both modes are essential to flash reason. The project documented in this blog experiments with the participatory emotions. In Routine (http://routine.electracy.com), the emotion is comic assertion. This point deserves a separate post.


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