Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Of "Lithic Coils" and "Petric Pregnancies" - _Stone; an Ecology of the Inhuman_ by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen

Fossils in Viollet-le-Duc's
gargoyles of N-D Paris
I've just closed the pages of Stone, an Ecology of the Inhuman, a book written (given, it feels) by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. And so this isn't a review of the book, with measured time and thinking and synoptic thought. This is the desire to stay in the book, to remain readerly and to not quite re-emerge from the "lithic coil" (87) wherein Albertus Magnus finds himself when thinking about the tiny fossilized shellfish he sees in the limestone of medieval (and modern (see image!) in the persistence of stone) Paris; to keep walking on the beach with Augustine as he makes temporal and theological sense of a fossilized tooth he finds in Utica (93); to think of Merlin as "an artist of estranged materialities" (176); to consider how many of the works of art I study I might conceive of now as "deracinated souvenirs," (204) objects wrenched from one world and triumphed into another; to never stop reveling in the "petric pregnancy" (240) of the stone paenita as described by Marbod of Rennes. The gifts of words rapt of stone gleam throughout the book. Within its entanglements and enmeshments, language and the lithic are both immemorial to the human perception of time - and yet both immediate to our perception. To make stone present through words, to make words as present as stone: this is one of the many wonders of the book.

Caillois's collection at the
Galerie de Minéralogie, Paris
It's hard to leave the book because it's hard to leave its fellow travelers. You enter a company of strugglers: those who have come up against stone and tried to understand intimacies, scales, and narratives provoked in the encounter; those who have come up against the uses and abuses of stone: when to lapidify is to racialize, when metaphors of stoniness curtail the human, when stone is reduced to resource. Understanding sifts down through layers of stone and becomes proposition, meditation, legend, strange love, unresolved science, enduring activism. Bennett, Latour, Bogost, Deleuze and Guattari, Joy, Alaimo, Morton, Iovino and Opperman join Geoffrey of Monmouth, Gower, Chrétien de Troyes, Noah, Gerald of Wales, John Mandeville, William of Newburgh, Marie de France, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chaucer and the fellows in the previous paragraph and others and others and others join Roger Caillois (whose collection you see gathered here) and Jean Kerisel (who heard stones suffer, who invites their struggle) join the efforts of the builders of Stonehenge, the architects of cathedrals, the designers of the Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas in Berlin, and the builders of hearths in Iceland. A good deal of the sense of companionship, I think, comes from Jeffrey Cohen counting himself as one of those strugglers. Each "Excursus" did not, for me, wander from the path of the book: each excursus marked the way for thinking as completely and vulnerably as one can upon the very hardest things. It's within each excursus that I began to think of the companionate struggle of stone and human, that I was able to fold back that thinking into the powerful claims of the chapters: that, for marvelous example, "stone invites a more ethically generous mode of worldly inhabitance" (250), that "every stone desires" (237), that stone is "always on its way to artwork" (135).

A persistent amethyst
Sainte-Chapelle Treasury
This book, with which (even in writing this I realize) I will live and think for a long time, leaves me in a quandary that I relish puzzling through. In clearing space for stone, Cohen writes "This book, however, takes as its focus stone that may be hewn but has generally not been domesticated into cornerstone or sculpture, into a display of human craft." (13) How do I, as an art historian and a beholder and teacher of medieval visual objects, keep them and their materials from which they are not separate from being domesticated? not only by human craft but by iconography and symbolism and transcendence - by all the disciplinary tricks we have come up with to control and still images. The works of art that have persisted since the Middle Ages have a hold on the human imagination that escapes its control. For the book convinces me absolutely that stone (and bone and ivory and all the searching materials that come into visual form) is harder to domesticate than we have led ourselves to believe, even in our finest mimesis, even in our grandest constructions. Theologians may make pronouncements on art about anagogical readings and ladders of transcendence, but romances and lapidaries tell very different tales of vibrant matter. A work of art isn't enduring because it has been infused by some human or divine force; it endures because it matters - this will have to be argued, I know. My own work now has me thinking more of the impress of material upon artist than that of artist upon material. The amethyst above, carved with Caracalla's portrait and inscribed with Greek letters, surviving the fall of the Roman empire to resurface in the Treasury of the Sainte Chapelle where it was inserted into the cover of a magnificent Gospel book - how can I think through its own domestication of its human handlers? How can I pursue the material persistence, the unruliness and "allure" (133) of stone (and ivory and paint and parchment and all the media fervently emerging in the Middle Ages) within "human impress"(13)? Is (isn't?) the divide between raw material and wrought form a human one? Maybe there is a way to think of the transformation from the raw to the wrought as a series of enmeshments and beholdings - this is certainly the project of my work. And so I am so grateful for the calls of this book - to "materiality in action" (228), to "a life of embeddedness, artistry, and ethical relation" (192) and to the phenomenal meditation on art and nature provoked by Albertus Magnus as he suggests the "force and inspiration of the stars" on both, and Cohen writes so beautifully of "humans and rocks... stirred to action by astral magnetism" (170-1).

Montneuf, always
I will also miss the spaciousness of Stone. One of the elations of reading it was how spatial it was, how often I found myself thinking through expansive places: on the beach with Augustine (a long, long walk, fossil in hand); in the forest of Broceliande in Brittany (its stones bedecked in moss and hosting wonders); near and far and in and around Stonehenge (and there and back again with Geoffrey of Monmouth); in medieval and modern Paris (and Jeffrey's writing is generous, it invites your own imaginings and memories); in Scotland perched atop Arthur's Seat; and, magnificently, at the end, in Iceland. Stone calls forth in these expansive landscapes not as boundary, but as dense world, memory holder, portal, witness, survivor, fluid and fragile within a temporal expansiveness that defies human perception, powerful to us in our tiny time, companion, fellow traveler, presence. This book - its gifts and struggles, the company it keeps, the trouble it bears, and the beauty it gleans - I hope that you will read it, that you can join its endeavors and "plumb the petric" (10) with its wondrous author.

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