A Grimoire in Nine Images
This past summer, like many a summer before, I spent some time along the Pacific Coast of the US, doing some beachcombing. Wandering and wondering in various places, sometimes focusing on the immediate moment as I walked and sometimes ruminating on the past or future or this or that, I would stand at the edge of the surf, watching the waves break, waiting for the water to rush over my feet, relishing the momentary disequilibrium and disorientation as it receded, and feeling its pull outward. At such times I also encountered, as one does, slitherings of kelp, and curious self-organized assemblages cast up between the tidelines — tendrils of seaweed entangled with shell shards, driftwood fragments, ragged feathers, weathered pebbles and sea glass, and bits of plastic waste, probably from local refuse but possibly wrack from the North Pacific trash vortex or the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami.
Although not, obviously, “intended” for me or anyone else, by observing them in a specific space, at specific and necessarily transient moments, I and other beachcombers nevertheless participate in such assemblages of what Jane Bennett has termed “vibrant matter.” As Bennett notes about one not dissimilar “contingent tableau” on a Baltimore storm drain grate, the contingency of the objects, “all there just as they were,” allows “a glimpse of an energetic vitality inside each of these things, things that I generally conceived as inert” (2010, 5). However mundane and (usually) unremarkable and unremarked upon, as they gather together these objects become things, “vivid entities not entirely reducible to the contexts in which (human) subjects set them” (2010, 5).
The practice — usually called zen rock stacking — is quite common along both Oregon and California beaches, although the practice is not by any means limited to beaches. See for example, this video. At other moments I came across other more explicitly intentional, human-made assemblages, material reminders of previous beachcombers. One particular instance comes to mind. At Yachats, Oregon, low basalt shelves mediate between the grassy space of a coastal park and a series of small sandy, pebbly coves. On one such shelf, just above the usual high tide line, someone, or perhaps multiple someones, had stacked beachcombed stones into dozens of small towers. The product of a meditative practice called zen stone stacking, such constructions usually form quietly unobtrusive additions to the landscape. These memorial cairns or miniature inuksuit, however, were more insistent, more assertive of human interaction with the natural. Indeed, the sheer number of them, more every day, seemed to border almost on the obsessive.
But obsessive about what? With what or whom were they in conversation? Were they meant to speak, as to me they certainly did, to the City’s memorial a few meters south to recent victims of so-called sneaker waves? After all, the stone pilings — and even the official monument, for that matter — are ultimately as fragile and imperiled as those lost beachcombers who ill-advisedly turned their backs on the surf, succumbed to its pull, and were swept out to sea. For footage of a sneaker wave and its effects, see this video. They are vulnerable to a tsunami if/when the Cascadia fault just offshore becomes active, to rising sea levels attributable to global climate change, and to winter storm surges. Indeed, the stackings I saw last summer were not those I had seen the summer before in the same place, and given the number of El Nino-driven storms already this winter (2015-16), I expect that most of them are already gone. If I return this coming summer, new ones will greet me.
I knew this even as I first looked on them: that these micro- megalithic gestures would eventually and inevitably be as transformed as the three similar pillars I had come across a day’s drive south at Gold Beach. Stacked between the tide-lines in the lee of a half-buried driftwood log, they stood firm the evening I first noticed them. But come the next morning, the intervening high tide had tumbled them, entangled them into a new assemblage with seaweed and shell. They had been transformed as much as broken: no longer the product of human agency acting upon the material other, they had become marvelously non/human, thereby displaying an indeterminacy that, as Noreen Giffney and Myra J. Hird argue, “raise[s] the issue … of instability, fluidity, reliance and vulnerability” and problematizes notions of boundaries between the human and nonhuman, subject and object (2008, 3).
Prompted and inspired by such non/human assemblages, I (like many other beachcombers, I am sure) pick up the odd shell and/or interesting stone as I wander and wonder along the shore. I take them home with me, far inland, where they rest in bowls with other gleanings or punctuate bookshelves. I am particularly drawn to stones with tide-weathered holes in them. Supposedly — or so I once heard, many years ago, and the fancy has stayed with me — if one looks out to sea through the hole, one may catch a glimpse of a marine Otherworld. I have never (yet) seen anything of that sort. But neither have I stopped looking.
The project from which these essays originated asked its collaborators to see beachcombing — and acts such as collecting and cairn-building — as potential metaphors for scholarly engagement, especially with the artifacts of the past — or, indeed, for wondering and wandering textual beachcombing essays and projects such as this one. No great leap, perhaps. In those, too, we pick things up, examine them, and form assemblages of one kind or another in conversation with whatever the ocean (or the passage of time) casts up upon the literal or metaphorical shore. It may take a little more imagination, however, to see non/human participation in such engagement, to admit (let alone focus) on what we (proud in our human and subject positions) owe to outside forces as much as to our own agency.
“Standing Stone Observatory,” photo by Shaun Dunphy, 2010: “Reflected Serendipity,” Flickr: URI.Wrætlic is þes wealstan, wyrde gebræcon [“marvelous is this wall-stone, broken by wyrd”]: wyrd — a virtually untranslatable word, cognate with the modern English “weird,” that encompasses but is not limited to “fate” and/or “time.” So begins the Old English poem known as “The Ruin.” In it, an anonymous poet/narrator encounters the remains of a past that can never be fully known but that nevertheless compells imagination and, through this imagining, confronts the effects of wyrd. I (the poem’s reader) encounter what is itself a broken text in a damaged manuscript. Do we — poet and reader, separated by centuries — both find ruins marvelous, wrætlic, perhaps, especially because they are broken and fragmentary and transformed into things of weird (wyrd) non/human beauty?
For there is something inherently wondrous in ruins. Ruins, whether architectural or textual, are intricately connected with the overlapping of temporalities, and with all the attractions and desires attendant upon a confrontation with Others across or beyond time. Heather Bamford, interrogating the mobility of poetic fragments — whether found or purposefully deconstructed — reassembled by users moving across cultures, geographies, languages and temporalities, describes how ruins invoke “a strong presence of the past without fixing or representing the past” (2013, 193). It is that uncertainty, that overlapping of past, present, and future, that mobility that allows — perhaps even compels — their collection and assemblage into new forms of engagement.
But we should never forget the danger, the precarity inherent in such encounters, not underestimate what danger contributes to wonder. It is in the confluence of danger and beauty, perhaps, that we find the truest attraction of the littoral — and of the past: the lure of being swept away, either physical or figuratively, by the tide or the mystery. The liminality of both the littoral and the past, of what is always just beyond our grasp, our comprehension, tempts us. The transformation of the tide — let alone the depredations of the sneaker wave, tsunami, or storm surge — make manifest the inevitability of entropy and loss, the effects of time and wyrd. And, I suspect, the wyrd-ness/weirdness inherent in encounters with the past seduces us even when our desires are most vehemently resisted or disavowed.
“Shroud of Charlemagne” (9th century). Polychrome Byzantine Silk. Musee national du Moyen Age, Paris. Public Domain, cropped. URI.In the classic ghost story “Oh Whistle and I’ll come to you, My Lad,” one of M. R. James’ unfortunate scholars, Parkins, the obsessively literal and “logical” Professor of Ontography (a discipline which would encompass the description, but not necessarily the deep study, of things) at a fictional Cambridge college, has made a habit of ignoring and even repudiating any possible allure that Otherness — the wyrd, the wrætlic — might offer. Yet even for him beachcombing the past turns out to be fraught with a dangerous allure that disturbs and disrupts complacent rationalism. He finds a strange bronze whistle buried in the ruins of the Templar preceptory on a crumbling, fragile coastline. It bears two mysterious inscriptions, only one of which he is able to translate: Quis est iste qui venit? [“who is this who comes?”]. The other inscription is more image-like and inscrutable:
Left untranslated in the story, it can, however, be construed by a reader as an ominously predictive sequence: flabis, furbis, flebis, “you will blow, you will rage, you will weep.”
Even before he blows the whistle — and of course he does, for how could he resist? — he sees an indistinct figure running toward him along the beach yet never closing the distance between them. The sound of the whistle, when blown, “had a quality of infinite distance in it” and “seemed to have the power (which many scents possess) of forming pictures in the brain. He sees quite clearly for a moment a vision of a wide, dark expanse at night, with a fresh wind blowing, and in the midst a lonely figure.” Afterwards his waking dreams are haunted by similar images of “a long stretch of shore — shingle edged by sand” — in an ominous twilight, and an anxious figure (a past or future version of Parkins himself, perhaps) fleeing an indistinct but nonetheless awful, “figure in pale, fluttering draperies.” “There was something about its motion,” the narrator adds, “which made Parkins very unwilling to see it at close quarters.” See it at closer quarters he does, however, as the pursuing thing summoned by the whistle eventually invades even Parkins’ bedroom, taking form from crumpled bedsheets, groping blindly toward him, but (fortunately) never quite touching him. Parkins is saved by the intervention of another guest, the Colonel, characterized by his own distrust of “papists,” high church ritual, and anything to do with England’s Catholic (medieval) past. It is the Colonel who eventually throws the whistle into the sea — though whether that puts an end to its danger or not may be left up to the reader to decide.
A cautionary tale for antiquarians and scholars — let alone beachcombers who might find a whistle on a crumbling beach? But it can also be read as a perverse invitation to experience what Carolyn Dinshaw has called a “queer touch,” a moment of connection that “creates a relation across time that has an affective or an erotic component” (1999, 50). As Dinshaw develops the concept in the context of the temporal turn in queer studies, emphasizing the amateurism at play in the work of early philologists, she calls upon contemporary medievalists to allow themselves the same kinds of joy — and (I would add) peril (Dinshaw, 2012). Such calls echo, too, in Elizabeth Freeman’s concepts of “erotohistoriography” and “temporal drag,” characterized by “the love of failure, the rescue of ephemera, that constitutes the most angst-ridden side of queer camp performance,” and the way that such camp performance can constitute “a mode of archiving” useful for contemporary scholars (2010, 68). An arcane pleasure to be found in our futile, fertile interventions and interpretations marks the work of both those anonymous Oregon cairn builders and those of us who “only” observe either the littoral or the past.
What also strikes me about the work, however, is (pace the ritual-rejecting Colonel in James’ ghost story) the urge to ritualize our encounters with the wyrd danger and beauty either of the sea or an incompletely recoverable past. And so it is with such thoughts (both wonderings and warnings) in mind, that I offer as my figurative beachcombing of decontextualized images a Grimoire in Nine Images. Why a grimoire, a book of spells? From the Old French grammaire, [“grammar”], grimoire came to signify an all but indecipherable figure of speech before entering the English language (by the early nineteenth century) as a compilation of magical rituals. Even before the word, the genre had proliferated in late medieval and early modern Europe. In assembling a grimoire — a grammar of ritual — from the images offered as prompts, I take a cue as well from Christopher Lehrich, whose book The Occult Mind asks us to imagine “a discipline that could exist but does not” (2007, xiii).
“Leechbook detail,” British Library MS Royal D.xvii, fol. 51r (mid-10th century). Public Domain, cropped. URI.More specifically, Lehrich explains, “if the common gesture of recent historians is to do history by means of theory, I have tried to open the possibilities of doing theory by means of history,” specifically the history of early modern hermetic and magical texts such as John Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica, Giordano Bruno’s de Imaginum, Signorum, et Idearum Compositione, and Athanasius Kircher’s Turris Babel (2007, 180.) As Lehrich reads them, texts like these offer magico-philological explorations, and “attempt magically to restore a lost presence to a language that never had it — or only before the fall of Ægypt” — an imagined Ægypt (as distinct from any real Egypt) being a time/space simultaneously of nostalgia for a lost past and hope for an imagined utopian future (2007, 173). The Monas Hieroglyphica, for example, “is a kind of formal laboratory notebook of ritual practice, Dee’s collated, polished notes of ritual encounters with the divine” later extended and developed into his infamous rituals for conversing with angels (2007, 54-55). In ritual “the first step defamiliarizes the object, dislodging it from an obscuring background so that its distinctive features become apparent, while the second familiarizes, making the object an instance of something known” (2007, 56-7). Allowing early modern magicians “to think the literally unthinkable,” (2007, 73) ritual as a medium of exploration renders philological speculation ontological rather than merely ontographical.
My own (much more playful) grimoire, arranged in three groupings of three images each, begins with an introduction of sorts, “On Magic and Scholarship.” This gathering presents, first, a previous academic beachcomber’s observation about alchemy and magic in medieval verse and, second, a fragment of a modern edition of such a text. The third image is a facsimile of a manuscript antedating the texts referenced in the first two, and antedating as well the grimoires of the later Middle Ages and Early Modern worlds. What attracted me to this image — a page from an Anglo-Saxon magico-medical familiar to me from previous work, and because of that familiarity one of the first images I “collected” — was the possibility of defamiliarizing and reframing (re-familiarizing) it so as to see not merely the practical medical text, but also the decorated initials and the curious figures in the left margin.
Notoria designates a specific kind of late medieval/early modern grimoire, detailing the construction of images through contemplation of which one might attain specific knowledge sets, including the University trivium and quadrivium. Granted, these “sigils” are by no means the angelic signatures and geometric figures that appear in later medieval and early modern grimoires. Nor is the beautiful map — for me the most beautiful image in the larger collection — that begins the second gathering, “A Ritual.” Yet I use it as such: riffing on the medieval magical Ars Notoria, I reframe it as a figure for contemplation, something to invoke a further imaginative encounter. In the second image, I see the blue encircling ocean of the map collapsed into the ring, the place of contact. And in the third, I see the circle and the ring echo in the decoration around the staring eyes of a talismanic skull. In this image, the material object is stripped of scale: is it something I might hang around my neck? Or a mask to cover my head? This lack of scale, as much as its unspecified origins, is disorienting and more than a little disturbing.
In the third gathering, “An Experiment,” I draw from contemporary Chaos Magick’s parsing of ritual as experiment as I invite you, my reader, to join me in looking as if through that skull’s eyes (or through one of the beach stones I collect) and catching a glimpse of something beyond our world. I invite you to stare, first, at a wall and more especially at a crack in that wall, a brokenness. Then to look into another fragment of medieval text, marking a modern editor’s encounter with a medieval glossator’s encounter with the biblical narrative of meeting an angelic Other. And finally, in the last image, to return the gaze of another pair of staring eyes. But whose eyes? Mine? Yours? Or those of a wyrd, non/human Other observing us as in a momentary space of encountering where I/you/we shall touch and know even as I/you/we are touched and known.“Standing Stone Observatory,” photo by XXX, 2010: “Reflected Serendipity,” Flickr: URI.
Department of English
California State University, Fresno
Bamford, Heather. 2013. Ruins in Motion. postmedieval 4(2): 192-204.
Bennett, Jane. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Dinshaw, Carolyn. 1999. Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press.
Dinshaw, Carolyn. 2012. How Soon is Now? Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press.
Freeman, Elizabeth. 2010. Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press.
Giffney, Noreen and Myra J. Hird. 2008. Introduction: Queering the Non/Human. In Queering the Non/Human. Abingdon, Oxon, UK: Ashgate. 1-16.
Lehrich, Christopher. 2007. The Occult Mind: Magic in Theory and Practice. Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press.