Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Behind the Tapestry

A few years ago, in the London Magazine edited at that time by Alan Ross, a little poem was published called 'Trace Fossils' by Alistair Elliot. I must admit from the outset that, although I recognise Elliot as a very good poet, particularly his translations of Verlaine, I am not very keen on this poem about trace fossils. From the word go, there is a problem: the title. Who knows what 'trace fossils' are?

I asked my wife, who has been married to me, a geologist, for more years than I care to mention, if she knew what a 'trace fossil' was and she said: "I don't know. Is it a small, basic fossil? Or perhaps an ancient woman from Essex?" (All women from Essex are called Tracy, as everybody knows.)

And I'm not sure that after perusing the poem, the reader would have any better idea of what a trace fossil is. Elliot begins:

'Soft-bodied creatures' - but they don't mean us -
'rarely leave anything.' They are picked at,
the food of scavengers, or rot ('release
their chemicals to the habitat').

These sentences immediately alert us to the orientation of the poet. He is a quizzical man, picking through the garbled staments of a scientist, whose words are either imprecise (soft-bodied creatures - but they don't mean us) or overlong and convoluted to the extent that they have to be decoded by the poet (why say 'release their chemicals to the habitat' when you could just say 'rot?').

Actually, 'trace fossil' is not a very good term. It sounds as if it means 'the trace of a fossil' when, in fact, it is 'the fossil of a trace' which is being referred to, that is to say, the trace of an organism as it passed through the sediment, now preserved as a fossilised trail.

The study of trace fossils is almost a subject in itself. The proper name for this study is 'ichnology'. There are even people who are professional ichnologists. Petroleum companies occasionally pay ichnologists to describe the sedimentary rocks within their reservoirs for them, particularly when there is nothing else to see in the rock in terms of structure apart from trace fossils. In this kind of case, one can even imagine that the trace fossils present in the reservoir might influence the ultimate recovery of oil, although how to set about quantifying this effect is beyond what anyone has so far attempted, to the best of my knowledge. The study of trace fossils is usually carried out to assist with correlation from well to well.

To return to the poem, Elliot mentions that trace fossils 'are the signatures of grazing' which is often correct. Many trace fossils reflect the pattern of movement of an organism through the sediment. Different organisms have evolved different methods for sifting through the sediment, or grazing over the sediment surface. The patterns they leave behind are often extraordinarily complex, or even artistic, as the picture above shows.

People who study robotics have been interested in trace fossils as a kind of yardstick for the development of robotic intelligence. If trace fossils evolved through time to become more sophisticated in their grazing techniques, could robots also be made to follow the same evolutionary paths, only more quickly? One can imagine how this might be useful in developing a robot that would find the shortest path to hoover a carpet, given that there were a number of obstacles to negotiate on the way, such as pieces of furniture.

Elliot's interest in trace fossils is aesthetic. He likens the traces to the work of an old master, stressing the element of anonymity:

"As if the drawings
of our millenium were anonymous:
Who is the Master of the Zig-Zag Gnawings?"

This anonymity is based on the statement that "nobody can tell what fossil left what trace". Unless Elliot is speaking very specifically of relating a single individual organism to a single individual trace, then this statement is incorrect. Many traces have been related to the kind of creature that originally made them, often by comparison with the activities of modern sediment feeders such as shrimps. Shrimps produce a kind of trace called Ophiomorpha which is a sophisticated burrow system lined throughout with small balls of clay which it rolls itself and uses to decorate the walls and give them strength.

The poem ends by shifting the imagery from that of painting to that of writing, thus:

this tablet, scrawled on by his wagging head and
body, backing over the tasty surface
like a left-hander, not to smudge his writing."

I interpret that the organism is a 'left-hander' in order to indicate that its methods are somewhat convoluted, a bit like the writer's methods one might say.

In fact, I have read somewhere that trace fossils, of which there are many different patterns, have served as the inspiration behind a style of Japanese caligraphy many centuries ago. In this much, the poet is not far off the mark.

But what is happening in this poem is that the poet is interpreting the world of the trace fossil through the eyes of a scientist. He is criticising the scientist for not being precise enough, but at the same time he is using his own imprecisions of scientific understanding to make wild statements. The reader, I think, will come away from the poem with a sense of 'what was all that about?'

I said I would come back to the similes of Claude Levi-Strauss, and I am going to do that now. In 'Tristes Tropiques', when he is describing flying over the fields of India, he says it is like looking at 'the reverse side of a tapestry'. The front, neat side of the tapestry he likens to a similar view over a European agricultural region. He explains this by saying:

"Europe and Asia would seem to represent the reverse sides of each other; one has always been successful, whereas the other has always been a loser; it is as if they were engaged on a common enterprise, but one had drained away all the advantages, leaving the other to glean only poverty and wretchedness."

Apart from a history of exploitation of one continent by another, he is also pointing to the influence of industrialisation on clearing the land so that it can be farmed 'scinetifically' whereas in Asia, the land is still densely inhabited because the industrial revolution has been less transforming, meaning that the landscape strongly relates to its human, intuitive usage.

I'd like to suggest that this image of two sides of a tapestry can also be applied as a metaphor to help us undertsand the differences between science and art. Science represents the neat front of the tapestry. Everything is beautifully precise. Neat ends are tucked away. Everything is made to look perfect. The language used by scientists is impersonal. Other thinkers on the subjects in hand are referred to by their surnames and filed away in a bibliography for reference. Personal dislikes or alliances are known to exist, but reading a scientific paper, these personal interests should not be apparent. The work is objective. It is rational. It can be understood by simply 'looking', which is to say, by applying the standard laws of logic.

Behind the tapestry, however, is the world of art. The intuitive world. Here all the loose ends hang out. They are not tidied away. In fact, a point is made not to tidy them away. Looking carefully, we see how one thread, having finished filling one patch of colour, jumps and moves to fill another. A lateral leap becomes apparent. We are not sure what drove this lateral leap (we would have to examine the other side of the tapestry) but nonetheless, the leap exists. Everything is personal. The style of the tapestry maker is immediately apparent: how they cut the thread; how neat they were in tying off the knots. None of this is hidden.

A few posts ago, I was thinking back to a reading by the poet Miroslav Holub I had attended and I noted what he had said when asked how he could be a scientist and a poet at the same time. He said: "I don't see much difference between the two."

Isn't that the perfect description of the back and front of a tapestry? Not much difference. Holub recognises the 'two cultures' proposed by C.P. Snow (and accepted by many people as the quotidian state of affairs), but by great effort he has managed to remain both a poet and a scientist. He knows that these two cultures are both looking at the same thing, only in different ways. He accepts the need for these two different approaches. When he is presenting at a scientific congress, he doesn't want to be introduced as a poet. He knows that people would not accept his scientific ideas if he had the air of a poet. People assume that a poet would not be able to subsume their own personal uncertainties and therefore would be unable to finish the tapestry neatly enough.

But that is a question of prejudices. In fact, as Holub knew, behind the tapestry are the uncertainties. The uncertainties that scientists have the habit of tidying away. Any scientist knows that whatever he or she is presenting contains flaws. The flaws may be large ones that completely undermine the work, or they may be small ones that do not detract from the overall 'truth' of the statements being made. To the artists, these flaws, uncertainties and ambiguities are stock-in-trade and they make the most of them on the reverse side of the tapestry.

To come back to Alastair Elliot's little poem about trace fossils, I'd like to try and locate what it is in the poem which jars. I think it is the fact, as I have said, that he is seeing the trace fossils too much through the eyes of the scientist. He is trying to explain the trace fossils at the same time as presenting his philosophical insights arising from these explanations. But where is the uncertainty, the ambiguity? Artists need to be interested in science, after all, it is science that pushes the bounds of human knowledge and understanding. But artists have to look with their own eyes, not with the eyes of scientists. Theres is not a neat, personal interpretation. Rather, it should be more like the forging of a new language.


Andrea said...

Hmm I had to read this twice to get the gist of it. The interesting thing is that when you look at 'fossils' you seem to obviously be looking at it from a geologist point of view. I look at most fossils and am awed by their strangly artistic beauty. hmmm

Jonathan Wonham said...

Andrea, first, well done for reading this twice! It's quite long I know.

Actually, I do see both points of view. I see the beauty in geological patterns just like anyone else. One cannot say, because he is a geologist he doesn't see the beauty of it. That's a false argument.

I believe that most geologists see the beauty of what they study, what they lack are the thinking processes to turn that beauty into what we understand as art.

The point I wanted to make with this article, is that it is somehow 'lazy' for an artist to 'see' the trace fossils through scientific eyes, and at the same time appear to criticise the scientist.

My point about the Chinese using trace fossils as the basis for a new calligraphic language is that they are not really concerned about the origin of the traces, but rather, their beauty.

They want their langauge to be beautiful and so they draw inspiration from something natural in the earth. You could say they respect the beauty of nature and want to be at one with the earth.

I'm not saying that the origin of the traces is not important to the artist, but somehow the artist has to take it upon himself or herself to work behind the tapestry, with all the loose threads hanging out. If the artists work is as neat as the scientist, I would argue, then that would not be art.

Thanks for your comment.

Andrea said...

'If the artists work is as neat as the scientist, I would argue, then that would not be art. '

This I totally agree with. I will admit that science was a very weak suybject for me. sorry. hehee

Deepa Bhasthi said...

fossils... interesting. i have always been very curious about cave paintings, the oldest footprints. there was a time when i wanted to be an archeologist until i learnt i had to go through some more years of physics which all went way over my head!
speaking of poetry, have you heard of the poet ella wheeler wilcox? mean to write about her in my blog one of these days. hardly anyone has heard of her. she wrote poems that common people could understand, you know what i mean?

Jonathan Wonham said...

Thanks for your comment Deepa. I had a read of some of Ella's poems and I quite like some of the things I read, such as 'The Age of Motored Things'.

This poem dreams that advances in technology will bring a better world, which indeed it has, for some. This poem was published in 1911 which I think was an age of optimism in technological advances.

The poem also suggests that the modern world will bring the real world closer to the 'unseen world'. Perhaps she thought people would have more time for the spritual side of their lives. This is not so clearly the case. It is my feeling that the advances of modernity have taken people away from nature, made them afraid of it to some extent.

All the best