I have never been a great rummager, but perhaps that is changing. Last Sunday I was passing a second-hand bookshop in a quiet corner of Dorsoduro, Venice. In among the boxes of old photographs, no doubt excavated from house clearances, I come across this image. Among hundreds of pictures of Venetian wedding parties, fisherwomen on the Lido, grandees posing before their canal palaces, and ordinary family snaps of forgotten events, my eye selects this one, and for some reason I have to have it. Why has this photograph found its way into a box outside this rundown emporium of old books and discarded objects on the Fondamenta Briati?
Who are these men and what are they doing? Both are looking down, perhaps at a long trench that has been dug out of the hillside, or at something on the ground that we cannot see. A stick or branch protrudes from the ground beneath them at an angle of 45 degrees, but the men’s gaze appears to be fixed on something just the other side of this. Behind them stretches a line of buildings, and a church suggestive to me of the South Tyrol or Alto Adige. The man on the left carries a cane or walking stick, but he is not leaning on it. His companion, who wears a hat, is entirely occupied by the sight beneath him. His posture suggests a slight buckling or sagging, as though in reaction to the thing he has identified that cannot ever be communicated beyond this stolen moment in time. Perhaps it is the future he sees, emerging from beneath him like Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, back turned towards the future. Perhaps it is an aleph, hidden among the shards and pebbles. Perhaps it is nothing of the kind, just a few bones, or a piece of broken mirror reflecting light. Behind them the mountains rise like a tsunami.
I like it when very distinct sources come up with the same material. One of the pleasure of writing a blog lies in sharing this kind of weird shit with my readers.
What to make of this?
Marcel Proust, in the last volume of A la recherché du temps perdu, having lost his footing on an uneven paving-stone, is reminded of an instance in Venice when, similarly, he had lost his footing, and through a process of accumulated memories of this kind attempts to measure the definitive instance of recall, the moment in which the whole process of revelatory recollection comes together. And his moment of revelation arrives in the colour blue, or azure:
The happiness that I had just experienced was indeed just like that I had felt when eating the madeleine, and the cause of which I had at that time put off seeking. The difference, purely material, was in the images each evoked; a deep azure intoxicated my eyes, impressions of coolness and dazzling light swirled around me and, in my desire to grasp them, without daring to move any more than when I had tasted the madeleine and I was trying to bring back to my memory what it reminded me of, I continued . . . to stagger, as I had done a moment before, one foot on the raised paving-stone, the other foot on the lower one.
It would seem that this swimming about in the blue, as an image of self-awareness, or imminent revelation, was something familiar to the ancient alchemists. Lindy Abraham, in A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery writes:
[T]he mercurial water and alchemical quintessence are frequently described as being sky blue or azure. Paraclesus introduced the symbol of the sapphire from the Cabbala into alchemy, where it came to signify the arcane substance. Thomas Vaughan described the tincture as having the colour of a certain inexpressible Azure like the Body of Heaven in a clear Day.’ He called the Stone ‘an azure Heaven.’ Elsewhere Vaughan wrote that the water of the sages was a ‘deep Blew Tincture’. To clothe in an azure shirt or garment means to make projection of the tincture on molten metal in order to convert it into silver or gold.
And finally Thomas Vaughan himself, alchemist and brother of the great poet Henry Vaughan writes in his Aula Lucis:
Hence you may gather some infallible signs, whereby you may direct yourselves in the knowledge of the Matter and in the operation itself, when the Matter is known. For if you have the true sperm and know withal how to prepare it – which cannot be without our secret fire – you shall find that the matter no sooner feels the philosophical heat but the white light will lift himself above the water, and there will he swim in his glorious blue vestment like the heavens.
If you have the true sperm and know withal how to prepare it . . . prepare, dear reader, to swim into the livelong blue.
The motif of the ouroboros appears in the ancient cultures of Egypt, India, Greece and Mexico, and was of particular interest to European alchemists in the early modern era. Conventionally it depicts a serpent or a dragon eating its own tail, from the Greek oura/voros = tail-eater. To the alchemists the symbol came to signify cyclicity, and thus, in a human context, self-reflexivity. In my beginning is my end. The idea of eternal return and intrinsic self-renewal. I am not quite a mystic, but many of my favourite poets were.
Now, the other day I wrote about labyrinths, another favourite topic, and quoted myself (although, ironically, I had forgotten from where): “an exit to the labyrinth marked entrance to the labyrinth”. Moreover, in the
catalogue to an exhibition on labyrinths that I attended in Barcelona last year, there is a short essay by Umberto Eco, in which, after discussing the difference between the uni-cursal labyrinth (in which there is only one route in and out, as in the illustration above) and the multi-cursal labyrinth or maze or Irrweg (in which there are alternative paths, all leading to dead ends: you can make mistakes, and may have to retrace your steps, but you will always be able to get out) he proposes a third type of labyrinth, the network, in which each point can be connected to any other point, which makes it possible to travel around for ever. And you never get out of the network: you keep going round and round inside.
This is all good, because leafing, as I am, through Marie-Louise von Franz’s excellent Alchemy, I come across the following:
“One must remember the Ouroboros, the tail eater, where the opposites are one: the head is at one end and the tail at the other. They are one but have an opposite aspect and when the head and the tail, the opposites, meet, a flow is born, which is what the alchemists meant by the mystical or divine water, which is described as the meaningful flux of life.”
So, both the ouroboros and the labyrinth have served as representations of energy, of flow, and of the questing human soul, or at the very least as symbols of regeneration. They are linked in profound and deeply sympathetic ways.
And then, as if to confirm the last happy thought, I come across this fabulous video, titled Ouroboros. It seems a good place to leave these thoughts hanging.