Monday, March 17, 2008

Bewick et l’écriture en plein air

Some Clouds

Romp’d through more of the Thomas Bewick biography, fitfully, between errands, between snoozes. Total collapse weekend. Or out to rummage in the used book “emporiums.” Late Michael Lally, early Marilynne Robinson. The Bewick exacts the perfectly doable ardours of eighteenth century natural history, that period when one arm’d merely with a faculty and desire to intently observe and clearly recount (or draw) ’d find a niche, advance the knowledge. Detail a new species. Whilst Bewick’s putting together a History of Quadrupeds, unbeknownst and in another part of England, Gilbert White’s indexing ’s Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (and sheepishly admitting that that work’s “an occupation full as entertaining as that of darning stockings, though by no means so advantageous to society.”) The other pull of Bewick: the printing presses, the making of “cuts,” moving the type-high block of boxwood (saw’d off against the grain for maximum hardness), angled against a leather pouch, a bag to hold it, cutting with a tool call’d a spitsticker. All the unchanged letterpress ways of getting a clean image. And Bewick’s capacity to tramp, long high Pennine walks. Woodcut making and walking both: ways into blessèd corporeal unconcern, high trance state, only the brainbox ticking (like straw) doing its ticking. Like writing. A wild traceable excitement to read of how Bewick, examining a woodpecker the “Revd Brocklebank of Corbridge” ’d provided, found its “Gizzard . . . full of Ants” or the hoopoe that, under the dissecting knife, show’d a “stomach full of the claws and indigestible parts of ‘insects of the beetle tribe.’” Reminders, no doubt, of requisite stomach-content incisions and spills after every fishing trip, that gleaming plug of anneal’d larval bits of dragonflies, or mayflies exposed, consider’d.

Thomas Bewick’s Swallow

Awake, 2 a.m., to think about two contrasting fables of representation. Bewick in a period of general turning back to the natural world—Uglow talks of a “thirst for fresh images of the countryside.” John Constable, after some few years of art school “painting paintings,” writes that
however one’s mind may be elevated, and kept us to what is excellent, by the works of the Great Masters—still Nature is the fountain’s head, the source from whence all originally must spring—and should an artist continue his practice without referring to nature he must soon form a manner, & be reduced to the same deplorable situation as the French painter mentioned by Sir J. Reynolds, who told him that he had long ceased to look at nature for she only put him out.
Bewick himself echoes the need for direct contact with the thing:
Had I been a painter, I never would have copied the Works of “Old Masters” or others, however highly they may be esteemed—I would have gone to nature for all my patterns, for she exhibits an endless variety—not possible to be surpassed & scarcely ever to be equalled.
So, drowsing, plagued by a concept of source-writing—call it écriture en plein air—a rejection of the kind of story’d pieties of an ecology of reuse—thinking of Jed Rasula’s This Compost, how writerly detritus is combined and recombined (collage, &c.) in a justified-by-ecological- imperatives-way. What of taint’d materials? What if the writ bits be carriers of contagion, coded with the Enlightenment ideologies of man’s separateness, disaster-implants in the lingo, the phraseologies? Maybe more dangerous than eventual mannerist indistinguishability (there is that, it is “legion”), there is—in the perpetual rehash of Old Masterly sketch and note, the threat of never gaining any other but our current relentless and suicidal purview of the our terrestrial place. And slept eventually, flying above rolling hills with my long arms oaring the air . . .

Thomas Bewick’s Woodcock

John Constable, “Cloud Study,” 1822