Monday, August 10, 2020

the moment has suddenly come to switch the ceiling lights back on... architects poets artists... see things in eternity rather than in the temporal.


Francis Ponge: "... it seems that some architects still forget electricity at times. I mean, that some still do not account for it - that is, as being of an importance equal to that of either air or daylight - when they draft their plans. This work has only one aim: and that is to be - I do not say convincing - but rather unforgettable, so that not a single one, as readers, will ever forget that electricity exists... Is that clear? / And now, we are going to turn off the ceiling lights on this book and on our intentions and instead, turn on the desk lamps or the bedside ones, and, with your permission, we are going to become more intimate... Isn't it already evident, in parenthesis, how pleasant it is thus to vary the lights instantaneously according to our state of mind, or according to the setting, the atmosphere or, as the saying goes, the ambiance that one wants to create? / And so, a layman was called in... himself a technician in another field... Language, quite simply... Because, all things considered, our language is the only one that has, in the Tower of Babel of techniques, some chance of being understood by one and all. / ...and yet, it had to be written... Architecture houses all the techniques. Electricity sheds light on them and animates them. And speech? Well, Speech (in another sense, it is true) houses them, animates them and sheds light on them, all at once. ... And now I must go on... I must suddenly turn aside and dig in: I must go back to my plan. / According to my plan... I must call myself a poet. What does that mean? Well, a layman, but lay in all things, systematically.... and in a paradoxical manner... for the enjoyment of his readers. / And now, the moment has suddenly come to switch the ceiling lights back on. / ...(but a moment, if you please) - to remind myself in my personal notebook to ask my architect, in the house he is building for me, to put in light switches near the windows (and not just close to doors and beds) so that I may better savor the night. / Here we are, then, in the night, and here is the open window. Whether the sky is overcast, as the saying goes, whether the darkness is without a break, and we should, for example, expect a storm, or that myriad stars, on the contrary, appear in the firmament, our basic feeling remains the same: we are placed, all of a sudden, and once again, in the presence of natural forces, and the infinite - spatial and temporal at the same time. / If we were, first of all, going to feel spatial infinity, the astronomical one, we now know that it is only a matter of electricity... let us put that aside for the moment, and let us rather plunge into temporal infinity, in the Night of Time. / Let us remain in the night a while longer but let us once again become aware of ourselves, and of the very instant, this instant of eternity through which we are living. Let us gather together, in this type of amusing, the most recent knowledge that we possess. Let us remember all that we were able to read... / How should I then consider the spectacle that night offers to my eyes? ...the very striking image... made us conceive of the atom as a solar system and its free electrons as comets. And, indeed... I am willing to concede for a moment that everything is an electrical charge, an electrical field, etc. But, in the final analysis... there is nothing there that does not remind me, given the quantum notion of action and of the principle of uncertainty (which only confirms it), of the famous 'clinamen' of Democritus and Epicurus... / And then, I reread Lucretius and I said to myself that nothing as beautiful has ever been written... And I know that he has been described as an anxious person, and as a madman... But since we are still on our balcony, with the lights out, looking at the nocturnal sky, I can also maintain, remembering Electra, that one might find in it an example of divine behavior... that he too had been placed among the stars... where his light has not yet diminished. / And now... I am beginning to see, although still indistinctly, a few reasons that had prevented me from explaining... / Note that we still haven't turned the lights back on. ...I must benefit a little longer from the darkness and... the possibilities of 'constructions' that it contains; the monstrous abstractions that it allows. / ... What would you want us to do? Well, exactly what we are doing, we artists, we poets, when we work well. ...It happens when we too dig into our matter: into meaningful sounds. Heedless of ancient forms and melting them back into a mass, as it is done with old statues, in order to make cannons out of them, ammunition... and, when necessary, new columns according to the demands of the Times. / Thus, we may perhaps, one day, create new Figures that will allow us... to traverse curved Space, non-Euclidean Space. / Not bad at all... as of that moment, I think now we have become one. I must admit there is something agreeable about all that. But to tell the truth, knowing myself as I do, if I have indulged in this fantasy, it was only because I knew how to suppress it instantaneously. What did I have to do? Well, suddenly switch the lights back on. / And here I am, without delay back on my feet in the visible world. And as I had better savored the night, by eliminating dusk... At that instant, in the glare of the electric bulbs, I see how wrong I had been about several things that the night had led me to construct. / Admittedly, at times, this can be rather unpleasant: a short-circuit or an atomic bomb. But we shall take it in stride... / We have now adopted washing machines, tape recorders, and electric razors. Why not? We would be foolish to get along without them. However, we will neither be the last ones to use them, nor the first, definitely not the last... Electricians have understood this. Isn't it about time architects understood it, too? / The way that man presently feels about electricity [1954] has not yet produced any major work, any major poetic work. Couldn't this lag, among architects and poets, be due to the same causes? Architects like poets are artists. As such, they see things in eternity rather than in the temporal. For all intents and purposes, they are wary of fashion... / Wouldn't the very speed of the progress of science prompt architects, like poets, to a certain resistance insofar as their deep commitment, their affiliation, their 'connection', is concerned? / Out in the street once more, I was stunned by all sorts of light. I then went to the home of a duchess friend of mine where I dined by candlelight. / Because of this, I soon became aware of a new fact. Electricity is a lasting marvel, not only because it determines our conquest of the future but because it does not, in any way, stop us from appreciating the pleasures of the past, and perhaps makes us more sensitive to them. / ...And I said to myself that I too could aim those beams on the pediment of a monument in order to bring out, as never before, a particular detail... I could dazzle an assailant or fascinate a prey... double or multiply my observations... provoke scandals or surprises, amazement or those grimaces that sometime accompany the revelation of a truth... / Coming back home in a mental state you can imagine, I felt simultaneously spurred on by emulation, an imperious need to sit down at my desk and finally write a worthy hymn to Electricity, but also, and such are the contradictions in nature, a need, no less important, for coolness, for silence and meditation in the night. / So much so that, switching off the lights, I went out on the balcony again. / .... In the end, I said to myself, because I was tired, I think that electricity has acted in a rather negative manner on poetry and art. We experience its influence in a general modification of taste. I mean to say that it has contributed in making us prefer clarity to the penumbra, perhaps pure colors to subdued ones, perhaps speed to casual manners, and perhaps a degree of cynicism to effusion. / All that has had a part, in all the arts, in shaping a certain type of rhetoric: one marked by a spark leaping between two opposite poles, separated by a hiatus in the expression. Only the elimination of the logical link allowing the spark to flash. / Poetry and electricity accumulating from that moment on, and remaining unknown until the lightning... / Such is the state of things that must be taken into account by architects, because there is no turning back... / At that point, I started to laugh... / It seems to me that we have indeed shown in everything that we've just said, although in our own way... the importance of electricity in dwellings... "

excerpts from Francis Ponge, 'Text on Electricity' [1954] (in Gavronsky, The Power of Language, 1979, p161-199.