Ideas of Order
I might have said the long wink. Is that what the “Word” is—nod and wink to each other, a precious secret code in our species’ stand against the vagaries of the World/Whirl?In the beginning was the closed eye, and so it will be in the end. In here happens all that will happen. In here all things are made that are made.
(from The Lore of the Ancestors)– Máighréad Medbh(1)
Encountering John Fitzsimon’s paintings in the Olivier Cornet Gallery(3) set me thinking about what we mean when we say “order.” Well no. I doubt if his paintings would have set me thinking on those lines, if the following quote hadn’t been prominently displayed:
Time and time again Fitzsimons's foreboding landscapes feature paths or roads that lead the eye to an ambiguous, dark destination, possibly a scene of war or environmental catastrophe. In each piece the artist deliberately distorts and blurs this distant space; the haze and confusion creating a sense of uncertainty and, in turn, anxiety at the viewer's inability to decipher what it is that lies ahead....
– Paula Clarke, March 2017(2)
Fitzsimons's 2012 collection, “Pyramid,” showcased an artist exuding confidence and self-assuredness. Sharp, geometric lines merged to form harmonious, triangular patterns which boasted bold, vivid blocks of primary colours. This was Fitzsimons's personal homage to the “golden age” of Egyptian civilisation whereby “equality, balance and peace” were at the centre of society. Of that collection Fitzsimons spoke of his intention to recreate this clarity and harmony in his work. At the time Fitzsimons was taken with an observation made by the Egyptologist Dr Carmen Boulter who remarked that the Egyptians would most certainly have viewed society today as a “Dark Age.”– Paula Clarke, essay, “Projections.”(4)
We constantly get this kind of commentary beside exhibited paintings. Could we have it as an optional extra after viewing? I was having a very strong sensual and instinctual response to the paintings, that was fragmented by this piece of information. Is it information? Perhaps in the sense that it intrudes something into the formation of my experience, yes, but does it describe verifiable detail? I believe that John Fitzsimons is concerned about the stability of society, and that he has adopted the notion of order as a creative subject matter. I do not believe that Egypt was so extraordinarily perfect that we should “pay homage” to it. I don’t understand the fine points of Fitzsimons’s practice, but it seems to me that his work would be an impressive experience without any knowledge of his motivations. The thought that motivates is never the thought that manifests, if the artist allows his or her tools to be fully part of the process: tools include limbs, senses, inner organs, personal history and geography. (And I must admit here that I'm guilty myself of the Author's Note, which I must address.)
So, now I must get over all these moral matters in order to meet the paintings on their own terms. I’d be much more interested in how he stood or sat while painting, what thoughts arose as he grew that yellow meadow, how he primed the canvas or mixed the colours. I can make my own metaphors. As for ancient Egypt (pre-Roman), about which I know very little, I understand that the society was pyramidal, by which I understand that there was no social mobility. Apparently, for a very long time (maybe 5,000 years), there were few, if any revolts, hence the notion of social orderliness. The society created extraordinary works of architecture and the famous Library of Alexandria. The great pyramids were not built by slaves, it seems, contrary to Herodotus’ account, but by respected labourers, who were devoted to the pharaohs, well-fed, and given honourable burial close to their divine masters and mistresses. There were slaves, but they were prisoners-of-war, and worked in households, mines or quarries.(5)
Might an era of strict social definitions with a clear general understanding of expectations and rewards be considered a “Bright Age”? Scientists tell us that memory generally constructs the past as better than the present, and that the workers had a tough life building the tombs they believed were portals to immortality for their walking gods. Was the social “order” in any way connected with the illiteracy of the lower classes?
Does he who rules the Word rule the World?Be a scribe for he is in control of everything; he who works in writing is not taxed, nor does he have to pay any dues. (6)
Is the Word our highest idea of order?Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.– Wallace Stevens(7)
It didn’t of course. It was still its own self. She had only claimed it as part of the human conceptual universe, as the pharaohs claimed supremacy by proclaiming their divinity (supported by the scribes). Establish a central idea as inviolable and order follows. C. S. Lewis asserted that it’s Logos, not the Word, that centralises. Accusing Jean de Meun of clumsiness in La Roman de la Rose, he says:“…when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song.”– Ibid.
Hegel said that love is the mind’s notion of unity. So, love = order, which may elucidate Fitzsimon’s equation—Ancient Egypt not being actual Ancient Egypt, but a portmanteau that symbolizes order. Perhaps what good artists do is what Lewis prescribes—provide diversity and contradiction, revolt also, anchored by an idea of order, some apperceptible unity. Their explanations are beside the point.“Unity in diversity if possible—failing that, mere unity, as a second best—these are the norms for all human work, given, not by the ancients, but by the nature of consciousness itself.” (8)
(from The Lore of the Ancestors)
“A solitary stone is a weak one, prone to obsolescence worse than death.
And so the Great Crush decreed unity, amalgamation. To be annexed
by the march of empire is to be forever famed and tasting the breadth
of immortality. Little becomes great in the large; morpheme to lexicon.
What was pulverised in shale becomes restored, a crystal resurrection.
Behold the elevation of quartz, the ultimate golding of pyrite,
the redeployment of sheet silicates. Mica’s crushed rebellion
morphs to glory, reforged in the indurated logic of the new light.
Agelast was born of this unitary spirit, slow-thinking in a closed fire.
All that made it is preserved within the streets and towers, breathing
history through every captured stroke of colour. Listen to the gray choir
in its utter harmony, each tone precise, contained, interleafing.
The citizens are offspring, not architects. They come as atoms do,
incognisant. It is the same breath, now hot, now close, now cold,
that transfigured shale to slate, slate to city, city to its variegated crew.
Agelast, self-conceiving, self-involved, is its own immanent god.”
– Máighréad Medbh, from Parvit of Agelast
(1) Parvit of Agelast. Dublin: Arlen House, 2016
(2) Extract from an essay on John Fitzsimons' “Projections”. Full essay here.
(3) Olivier Cornet Gallery website
(5) “Great Pyramid tombs unearth 'proof' workers were not slaves”. The Guardian.
(6) A proverb taught in ancient Egyptian schools, according to Douglas J. Brewer & Emily Teeter, of the University of Illinois, Urbana, and Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago. http://fathom.lib.uchicago.edu/2/21701778/
(7) “The Idea of Order at Key West”, Selected Poems. London: Faber and Faber, 1993.
(8) The Allegory of Love. New York: Oxford University Press, 1958, 141.