Sunday, November 25, 2012

Mimesis and Intention

Helictites of Marengo Caves
Mimesis and intention are two crucial terms in traditional art history (what does the image look like? did its maker intend that for it?).  The field asks different questions now (about appropriations by the audience, about the agency of the image), but I find myself drawn to what is surely a mimetic fallacy in caverns.  We were in Marengo Caverns today, close to the town of Marengo, named after the Napoleonic battle for Marengo, Italy in 1800, its own (really weird) kind of mimesis.  And throughout, part of the delight of being underground again was in recognizing what the formations might be, seeing resonances with things above ground.  These helictites gathered together in bunches looking like so many little trees, the calcite deposits above them flowing like drapery. Roger Caillois did this with abandon in The Writing of Stones, each stone more available than the last to express a mimesis, an aesthetic understood by humans. Why do we do this?  It's almost irresistible, and yet surely absurd: mimesis pulls away from the ontology of materials...

The Crystal Palace
 ... it asks paint to be the Mona Lisa's smile, it asks stalactites to be an organ, it turns the mind away from stone and towards a Crystal Palace, a futuristic city, a moonscape. We do this all the time to nature, we apprehend natural forms and rethink them: a tree looks like an old man, a rock like a landscape. The only thing I can say in defense of the mimetic impulse/fallacy in an Indiana cavern is that in limestone (of which these caverns are carved) being a sedimentary rock, it does indeed participate physically in things above ground: somewhere in the mud and sediment that became limestone, there were trees - crushed, compressed, carried. But this is a physical resonance, not an aesthetic one. And it takes millions of years for this layering of trees into rocks to occur, and my mimesis takes but a second.

A stalagmite
And then the matter of intent. The careful placement, it seems, of stalagmites - some, in alignments, some perfectly framed by surrounding stone, solitary statues, abstract carvings.  It looks intentional; it looks placed there just so.  That, in some ways, is no more mind boggling a thought than the geological reality that the entire cavern -- all the arrangements and alignments and placements -- is the result of insistent, indeed relentless, chance.  A push of water bringing with it sediment here, an accumulation there, a concentration here, and before you know it (and I mean that literally in terms of millenia), an entire composition has been created - a scene, an environment, sometimes with symmetry and a center, often with whimsy and expression.

But is there any possibility for mimesis in nature? It is, after all, the cardinal indulgence (ask Tim Morton in Ecology without Nature) of the human apprehension of nature: to make it what it is not - to reduce it, to wrench it, to the human. There is one thing that I would argue cavern formations represent, however, one thing I would vouch they are mimetic to: time.  This impression is just as untrue as trees in the helictites, but it is, I realized today, the punctum of these visits: the awe and poignancy that keeps me coming back.  A cubic inch grows every one hundred years (the amplitude of "cubic" slowing down the process even more: the formation doesn't just grow one inch up or down, but one inch all around).  So yes, these stalactites are images of time, perhaps monuments to time's passing more than anything else.  And to time passing so beautifully, so randomly, in such seemingly purposeful poses. 

Mere Lake
There are many opportunities to fool yourself here.  An entire vista reflected in a limpid pool, one that looks to be dozens of feet deep, but turns out to be only a few inches of water.  The lighting of the caverns is kind of like the editing of a movie - the silent commentary that absolutely shapes the narrative.  The cave was discovered by Blanche and Orris Hiestand in 1883 (15 and 11 years old respectively), who did so by candlelight.  A week later, the property owner had the cave open for paying tours, with big changes in 1910 and the 1970s.  These are the human agents, the intentions of whom are clear.

Yes, they held square dances in the caverns
Clear, but strange nonetheless.  There's more I need to read in order to understand not just our mimetic impulse towards nature, but also the 19th and early 20th century mimetic uses of the caverns.  The ease with which, elsewhere, Howard Carter and his investors dined upon linen tablecloths laden with fine china and thick silver in an Egyptian tomb; the glee with which, here, an annual "underground square dance" is announced as an extravaganza.  And so: a huge opening in the cave with 20' tall ceilings becomes a grand ballroom; a rock that juts out before an open space becomes a pulpit for a pastor to preach (from 1924 on into the 1940s); a smooth, grand mound hosted Elk Lodge meetings until the 1950s; Boy Scouts slept here until the late 1970s  - it's like an extreme mimesis: a mimesis of use.  "Can we let nature be?" - I can ask this very literally.  What is the non-mimetic apprehension of the natural?  There are books about post-humanism that I am eager to read to answer this question (there are geology books, too).  In the meantime, I register this phenomenon: the more I visit these caverns, the more mimetic my response - as though a growing familiarity with the natural avails more human fantasy.

Pennies from Heaven
To end, then, with a reminder that we are, after all, in Indiana.  Marengo Caves is a National Landmark, but it benefits from little to no government oversight, and in previous cave visits, this has meant everything from banging boats in order to create sound effects to other home grown fantasies.  Here, there is a stretch of the cavern whose ceiling is entirely covered in mud - all of it, a slick, smooth, pervasive surface.  And so, were one to throw pennies up to the ceiling, one would have the happy satisfaction of seeing them stick up in said mud.  The cavern becomes hungry for the pennies, keeping most, letter others fall - another story, another mimesis.  The camera wants to play, too, making a mud surface full of pennies look like a night sky, offering new constellations of possibilities.


  1. Beautiful, as always ... and you need to stop reading my mind, or EVERYTHING in my stone book will have been pre-empted by your blog!

    I like Caillois' idea that mimesis is kind of accidental (and I suppose for him, beside the point) -- but that all things share a universal impulse to creativity, a cosmic tendency to produce the beautiful.

  2. Thanks, Jeffrey - I am intrigued that mimesis is more often beautiful than ugly, that the very mimetic _act_ of a natural formation is itself beautiful. What moved me about Caillois was his ability _not_ to worry about will and agency, to remain comfortable with (I love your word) the tendency of a stone - it's not that the stones strive or contrive to look like something in our world, it's that they do. And lest we forget: I am stumbling around in the dark out here - eagerly awaiting your lucid, luminescent writing on stones.