A modern Epipsychidion in the prose of everyday life
Returned from Maidstone yesterday to a cold, empty flat and hit rock bottom. So I briefly took to my bed and by late evening had just about come round, taking notes on Shelley’s Epipsychidion (“the soul out of my soul”).There is hidden away within the text a notion of vegetable architecture (or in today’s parlance biotecture) which I thought I could use, a place “beautiful as a wreck of paradise”. It also has a location and that just has to be an island, this particular Galapagos of utopia lying somewhere in the Aegean Sea. Following the collapse of the city states in the ancient world, in the genesis of utopias it is islands, until the arrival of large scale industry and Fourier that largely come to occupy the place they have vacated. Evolutionary geneticists are prone to infection by “isolomania”, for islands are hot houses of speciation as much as breeders of social utopias. The most famous fantasy island of all does not have a name and Shakespeare’s “The Tempest “ could also be a bio-lab in which is created, the “brave new world” of engineered life, the para-life designed to eventually populate the universe as natural life here on earth is destroyed. In the history of possible utopias “The Tempest” is unique for its counter posing of a communist conspiracy of monsters and shipwrecked sailors suddenly released from servitude into a world of natural plenty - ( based on an actual incident when the commoners of the “Sea Venture`” opted to stay put in Bermuda rather than continue on to the crown colony of Virginia) - to that of the nascent science of the Magi still conjuring up nature sprites rather than engaged in engineering micro-organisms in a petri-dish. I have for sometime felt the sea-changed world of “The Tempest” has even more of a basis in fact today and is particularly relevant to the predicted waterworld resulting from rises in sea levels, and the inundation of most of the world cities that have been built on littoral or flood plains. They too will become corrupted, not by enchanting corral, but acidic seas of carbonic acid, this bleakest of metamorphoses, the sterile accompaniment to the bio-revolution marking humanity’s demise and all the more necessary because nothing, or very little, will then be worth fighting for and saving.
Though taking Ancient Greece as a starting point, Shelley still sought “a better best”. A better paradise had to be constructed from the detritus of the old Edens’ and rag bag of ancient myths “for killing truth had glared on them; our hills and seas and streams, dispeopled of their dreams-“. From these “dissolving dreams” better dreams arise. In 1815 Shelley had put together a “catalogue of dreams” and his uncontrolled lyricism frequently borders on the oneric as if beyond the conventions of poetry there lay the radical democracy of the pure dream whose day has yet to arrive. However much it yearns to be so, it is not yet praxis. But nature is, if left to grow wild and allowed to be, becoming an image of our estranged human potentiality, that which we aspire to. Untrammelled nature becomes the supercession of art, an uninhibited presentiment of what might be had we also been allowed to grow. Nature completes what has been devised by man by ruining it and taking it over, almost re-growing it as it were. The dream, though a natural fact and a piece of nature awaits its realization; Endymion dreams only in poetry and myth and has long since ceased to do even that. And so all we now left with is the archaeology of dreams, not their interpretation and living presence.
It also could apply to industrial dereliction - how nature takes over and remakes the original structure, rust being the fungi of metal. But where are the “parasite flowers” here that illumine like gems, like the rare “pinks” that once were allowed to take root and propagate freely in the lime rich mortar that bound together Fountains Abbey’s hewn blocks of magnesium limestone lain down in the vast, shallow Zechstein sea 600million years ago and in which we could paddle hundreds of mile from the shore. These exiled architectural calcicoles were slowly but surely destabilizing the building, giving it life before the heritage industry killed them off, weeding out both natural progression and the recognition of humanity’s potential that comes from a grasp of history. There is no vegetative growth more beautiful than crottle and lichens growing on a livid, puss-yellow rash of peeling metal paint.
Nature usurps art and manufacture, it becomes a critique of art by wiping the slate clean, using it to climb up, disfigure and finally erase “all the antique and learned imagery”. However it only becomes meaningful through an ideal love that obliterates all previous loves that find their truth by being forgotten and that then creates an ideal, re-imagined nature. We are not dealing in essences here but we do see as if for the first time. Entwined in each others arms, all is as in a dream, a waking dream that redefines reality. In terms of what we see, we read a different book of nature and poetry’s metaphor becomes a commonality of shared ‘hallucinations’ that not only breaks through the written word but language itself: “thoughts melody become too sweet for utterance, words die to live again in looks”. There is nothing more to say that can be said in words, from here on gesture takes over and we divine. We are free to embark on new voyages of discovery across the same seas and being what we choose it to be likewise transfigures whatever transports us. “Emily - there is a path on the azure’s sea floor/no keel has ever ploughed that path before”. No longer suggestion, in this new state all simply is.
And I also realised Shelley’s notion of free love was not that dissimilar to mine, how the one becomes the many only then to become a singularity in which all the others are contained. I believe I found something like this with Joan (alas now dead), a supreme love but which does not debar me from loving others. In fact Joan unlocked in me the power to love others but only insofar as it goes through her: she licenses it, gives me permission. Some of Episychidion is taken from the Vita Nova and the notions of courtly love, which I think, raised the indispensable psychical value of love to heights hitherto undreamed off. In the digital age we are rediscovering it, but unbeknown to ourselves, cyberlove rather than cybersex, constructing the “Lady” at the end of a terminal. An avatar is a degradation of that ideal when we clothe it. It is better that our heart’s desire remain essentially formless. Courtly love also has to do with imprisonment, the selling of a woman’s hand in marriage to the appropriate bidder. In Italy the promised bride was incarcerated in a convent and Emilia Viviano became the Emily of Epipsychidion. Both Percy (Shelley) and Mary (Shelley) struggled to liberate Emilia from her religious prison. The horrid conventions of bourgeois marriage were only to reproduce this transaction by democratising it, veiling it in the subtleties of something freely consented to disguise its mercenary nature. It is a ‘value’ relationship pertaining more to political economy than the real annals of love. Only unrealised love has real value and hence the ‘use value’ of unrequited love, the one love that transcends exchange, the derelict love counsellors want to build over and so destroy its unsettling memory forever. And I wonder how much serious illness bound me to Joan for she was very much a prisoner within her own flat, indeed of her orthopaedic bed. We could not go anywhere; there was no outside distraction, no false venue to attend in which to corrupt our love by pretending to take it higher or meals in restaurants. All we had was each other - and a great deal of toleration. She did watch TV all day but only because it gave her some relief from insupportable pain. Entertainment was for her a branch of the drugs industry. Joan thus gave it its correct name. She became lost in discontinuous stories she could not follow in the first place because it required too much concentration from a mind shot to ribbons by pain. The fact that you are seeing someone else has made you mine more than ever.
Stuart Wise: January 2010