Or The Need for Words in a World of Pictures
It is indeed getting pretty sad, I thought, when I write a text at someone’s request, send it dutifully off (albeit certainly so late it is no longer of any use, or for some catalogue long gone to the printer) and then cannot for the life of me recall who it was for.
Although, the modest silver lining is of course stumbling upon it again and thinking well, there could be a place for that…
While we live in a self-proclaimed world of images, and experts remind us how we are constantly solicited by and bombarded with imagery of all sorts, I often wonder if our pretended inability to digest them all is because their language has become in a way a foreign one, a background noise not inviting a reply, or even thoughts. We need to learn how to articulate our imagery, and how to tell stories again.
IMAGES WERE MAGIC ONCE
Images were magic once. They adorned the walls of deep caverns, propitiated, evoking victory over creatures dangerous and necessary for survival. In that way, man possessed the essence of those creatures as well as their nourishing flesh.
Images were language once. The earliest letters, long after the earliest hieroglyphs (the meaning of “hieroglyph” is “sacred carving”), evoked creatures and elements. They summed up, or conjured, or invoked those things they named, and gradually gathered meanings as they grew more abstract and distanced from imagery.
Images were true once. Stories of ogres, dragons, princesses and knights grew in the minds of those harkening to the storytellers the Brothers Grimm patiently listened to as well. The same kinds of stories were sung and told through countless generations, before their penning by scribes. Beowulf, Gilgamesh, Jason, Arthur, and countless more, before we invented fiction as we know it, possessed images that were real in the minds of those who knew the stories.
Now images are no longer magic, no longer language, no longer necessarily true. They are used, abused, manipulated, commercialized and bought and sold like other commodities. We take them for granted. We associate them with immaturity – we believe “serious” imagery deals with life, not with things imagined.
Nevertheless, fantasy art is the inheritor of that magic, language and truth that once only it communicated. Fantasy is the realm of archetype, meaningless only if art itself were to disappear from the face of the earth. If I could claim as my own words written more than a century ago, it would be these:
“En effet, lorsque l’époque où un homme de talent est obligé de vivre, est plate et bête, l’artiste est, à son insu même, hanté par la nostalgie d’un autre siècle. .. Chez les uns, c’est un retour aux âges consommés, aux civilisations disparues, aux temps morts; chez les autres, c’est un élancement vers la fantastique et vers le rêve…” ~ J. K. Huysmans (1848-1907), “À Rebours”, 1884.
(“The truth is, when the period at which a man of talent is condemned to live is dull and stupid, the artist is, unconsciously to himself, haunted by a sensation of morbid yearning for another century… In some cases, it is a return to past ages, to vanished civilizations, to dead centuries; in others, it is an impulse towards the fantastic, the land of dreams, it is a vision more or less vivid of a time to come whose images reproduce, without his being aware, as a result of atavism, that of by-gone epochs.” ~ J. K. Huysmans, “Against the Grain”, published in English in 1926.)
The resonance of fantasy is as pertinent as ever, but fantasy is a master of disguises, and always reappears where we least expect it. The magic and the truth remain; it is up to us to learn the language again.
Abandoned, unlit, the lighthouse still stood, alone on the headland, the keeper no longer venturing to kindle the fires; ships no longer came. Decades now, since the Lastships had sailed over the horizon, departing the human realms, their great sails shining like the sinking sun.
Mortals no longer came to the shores; so painful was the longing, so persistent the last glimpse of the great ships, light filling their sails like so many clouds at sunset, slowly fading.
But Almathea came alone, hugging her thin shoulders against the wind. She gazed at the headland. The faces were clearer today, the cheekbones sharper. The very land itself yearned after the vanished demiurges, clouds echoed their silhouettes, the waves chanted their names, and now earth and stone moved, shifted and formed, a silent plea in their likeness, to call and lure them back to the land.
She frowned and shivered. It was beginning to rain. With a grimace she tugged at the nacre amulet, snapping the thin cord that held it. At her feet, drifts and mounds of similar charms, now pitted by frost and dulled by salt and wind, mute witness of desperate rituals of hope abandoned, first by the priesthoods, then by the people themselves. She knelt, reached out to place hers atop the pile.
Then suddenly she stood, anger flaring through her whole body, she would not, not, never. She hurled the amulet outward, seabirds scattering. It caught the light an instant, then was swallowed by the waves.
She would never, never give up. Never. She would bring Them home.
From “The Lastships” by J. Frank-Lynne.
This and the gulls’ disconsolate reply.
Beyond your hearing is their derelict cry.”
Excerpt from “This is Your Elegy” by James Reeves (1909-1978).