Saturday, October 17, 2009


(Arthur Rackham's Valkyrie)

Recently I was asked if I would consider teaching Gaston Bachelard's "Poetics of Space." So now I am - after saying yes. Reticence complicates phenomenology to the point of spoilage.

I'll have to buy another copy of it. Poetics of Space is the best known, and most often taught, of his books, mostly to students of architecture. Appropriate then, I suppose, that it would be the usual doorway to his philosophy. My first copy was given to me by an abstract expressionist painter in the late 80s. Since then my bookcase has dispensed five copies. Maybe teaching it will be more economical.

I'm not sure exactly why his writing has proven so useful to me. The subject matter, detailing how the imagination engages with the classic elements of Earth, Water, Air and Fire, duration and matter, is precisely the focus of my work, but maybe what inspires me most about his writing is the freedom claimed by the title of his collection of essays -"The Right to Dream."

I've been dreaming (daydreaming - or in this case more accurately, pre-day dreaming) about the battle scene in YACB for many weeks now. It is easily the hardest subject to approach of any that I've applied my method to. I'd like to say that is because of a general aversion to violence, but the truth is more complicated. It may be a fear of falling.

An opera or movie buff, asked to free associate music and battle, would likely arrive at Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries," and there are a number of reasons to connect that music with YACB. Wiki says: "The Ride of The Valkyries has been used to accompany moving pictures since the earliest days of Hollywood. The original score for D. W. Griffith's film The Birth of a Nation (1915), compiled by Joseph Carl Breil and Griffith, used the music in the climactic scene of the third act, when "The former enemies of North and South are united again in defense of their Aryan birthright" against liberated former black slaves after the end of the American Civil War. The beleaguered white group are rescued by the Ku Klux Klan to the sound of the music. " Staging that scene now might be something like yelling "Fire!" in a theater though.

Curiously, the only Youtube clip of this scene I could find was a French post, with different music replacing the original Wagner...

Contemporary viewers are more likely to think of "Apocalypse Now." More to my tastes in film (Wagner's music is not to my tastes period. I'm with Stravinsky, who, when asked what he didn't like about Wagner's music, said that he "...didn't like the major pieces, and he didn't like the minor pieces.") - would be in a favorite film, Fellini's 8 1/2, where, coincidentally, it occurs in the "spring water" scene.

But the image of the Valkyrie, thankfully, came to me unsmudged by Wagner's bombast. I studied Norse mythology before I ever heard of Wagner. And one of the cross-points of YACB is the meeting of Germanic and African myths.

One of the things I love about this kind of work is how the careful working through of seemingly disparate material will gradually reveal underlying connections which will, when articulated, form a skeleton of the finished opera. Lacking Bachelard's Poetics of Space, I delved into Earth and Reverie of Will instead, hoping that the chapter on gravity would shed some light (or darkness) onto the important motif of falling in YACB. The first sound, the first point defined in space and time, in YACB is a dirt clod hitting the lid of Pete's coffin. I was struck by this passage:

"But let us begin with an example of the gentlest and most delicate of vertical inducements, a hill seen as bringing earth and sky together. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, her soul filled with memories of Italy, dreams in a remote corner of England, contemplating

the ground's most gentle dimplement
(As if God's finger touched but did not press
In making England), such an up and down
of verdure, - nothing too much up and down,
a ripple of land; such little hills the sky
Can stoop to tenderly and the wheatfields climb...

Let us take full measure of this vertical sensibility! The modeling deity works all in caresses; the power in every contour is drawn with the same delicacy of proportion; the sky stoops as gently as the wheat field climbs, the hill breathes, hovering weightless upon the surface of the bountiful earth, thrusting neither too rapidly nor too far into space. The hill sets us in equilibrium midway between earth and sky, providing us exactly enough verticality and on such a human scale that we desire to make our way slowly up that orchard and field-terraced slope, to clim slowly in thought without physical fatigue and especially without fatigue of the imagination. The very soul of the hills is there in the verse. Browning's poem thus establishes a standard of gentle verticality sufficient to bring out the dynamic imagery so characteristic of landscapes of vine-covered hillsides and country roads. It teaches us to read other poems of verticality with sensitivity."

This mention of gentle small-scale undulations of the earth reminded me of my thoughts on the scale of Dutton Hill. It isn't a mountain. It isn't even a tall knob. It's a high place in a gently hilled landscape. The Cherokee relate that the hills and mountains were formed when the original Buzzard flew low over the primordial mud and grazed it with her wingtips, raising the Smokey Mountains and all the rest with barely a touch. What better pair of wings to grace a Valkyrie than the vulture's?
Who else watches the dying soldier with such careful interest? If a literal ascension to heaven from the battlefield is to be achieved in YACB, it's most likely to be via buzzard.

Will history confirm that such an event took place after some battle in the Civil War? I'll check, but dreaming, luckily, requires no artifact to initiate it. An image is enough. History is, after all, only a pretext to dream.

Here's the connection to Yoruba myth in a Cuban story. In contrast to some mythologies, the orisa and humanity are dependent upon each other. Osun is the orisa of fresh water, love, harmony, abundance, luxury, and forgiveness ~

"In the early days of the world, and of Ilé Ifé, (the first city on earth) the orishas became tired of serving Olodumare. They began to resist the Owner of Heaven's edicts and to even plot the overthrow of Olodumare's kingdom in heaven and earth. They felt they didn't need Olodumare and that as the Lord of Heaven was so distant anyway, they could merely divide the aché or powers among themselves and that things would go much better that way. When Olodumare caught wind of this attitude and their plots, the Owner of Heaven acted simply and decisively: Olodumare simply withheld the rain from the earth. Soon the world was encompassed by a staggering draught, the ground became parched and cracked, the plants withered and died without water. And it wasn't long before all on earth, orishas and their chidren alike began to starve.

After a short time, growling bellies and sallow faces began to speak louder than their pride and rebelliousness. They unanimously decided to go to Olodumare and beg for forgiveness in hopes that this would bring rain back to the world. But they had a problem: none of them could reach the distant home of Olodumare. They sent all the birds one by one to attempt the journey but each and every one of them failed, tiring long before reaching the palace of the Lord of Heaven. It began to appear that all hope was lost.

Then one day, the peacock, who was in reality Oshún herself, came to offer her services to save the world from this draught. Once again there was general upheaval and laughter as the orishas contemplated the idea of this vain and pampered bird undertaking such a journey. "You might break a nail", said one. But the little peacock persisted and as they had nothing to lose, they agreed to let her try. So the little peacock flew off towards the sun and the palace of Olodumare. She soon tired of the journey, but she kept flying ever higher, determined to reach the Lord of Heaven and to save the world. Going yet higher, her feathers began to become scraggly and black from the withering heat of the sun, and all the feathers were burned from her head, but she kept flying. Finally, through sheer will and determination she arrived at the gates of Olodumare's palace. When Olodumare came upon her she was a pathetic sight, she had lost much of her feathers and the ones that remained were black and scraggly. Her once beautiful form was hunchbacked and her head was bald and covered with burns from flying so close to the sun.

The Lord of Heaven took pity on her and brought her to the Palace where she was fed and given water, and her wounds were treated. He asked her why she had made such a perilous journey. She explained the state on earth and went on to tell Olodumare that she had come at risk of her own life so that her children (humanity) might live. When Olodumare looked to the world and to Oshún's plaintive look, it was obvious that everything she had said was true. The Lord of Heaven then turned to the peacock who was now what we call a vulture, saying that her children would be spared from this draught and ordered the rain to begin again. Then Olodumare looked deeply into Oshún's eyes and into her heart, then announced that for all eternity she would be the Messenger of the House of Olodumare and that all would have to respect her as such.

From that day forward in this path she became known as Ikolé, the messenger of the House of Olodumare. Ikolé also is the name for the vulture in Lacumí. And from that day the path of Oshún known as Ibú Ikolé was revered and became associated with her bird, the vulture. The vulture then returned to earth, bringing with her the rain, where she met with great rejoicing. As befits a queen or Iyalodde, she graciously refrained from reminding them of their jibes and abuses as she could see the shame on their faces."

Back on the battlefield, atop that gentle hill, with a video of the dance above Buzzard Roost in mind, this arrived:


She landed and stood
watching for the change
that drew her down.
To catch that moment takes a special eye.

Eye of beauty, take what you've
seen and rise
the hungry earth
to spiral in the clouds -
the soul of the soldier
is in your craw -
may the thermal lift you
up to heaven's door

May the crosswinds lift you
up to Valhalla.

Long ago, when all these souls
that you transport
still lay unformed in mud, the
tips of our mother's wings
pushed this hill to
touch the sky -
now heeding the call of silence
when all battle is done,
your sisters turn the
unborn in the womb of air,
and recede like rising specks
of soot
into the soundless blue,
so that only peace remains
to sink into the ground.

(Alan's amazing pic of a turkey vulture.)


Cathy said...

Wagner scares me. Maybe it's racial memory. ;-}

I'll bring you a copy of the Bachelard, dear boy.

Dan Dutton said...

Ah ha! Confession of being scared? (See bravado in earlier post?) Thanks!

Cathy said...

Alan's photo is fantastic.

Dan Dutton said...

He was just here & showed me a bunch of his latest photos ~ they're all amazing. I picked out 6 (including this one) that had pink or red in them.

And we started work on the 10 hr ambient soundscape of Pete's Spring. Whew! another part of the puzzle in progress...!