Enwrapping & hollowing

Notes from ‘Radical Landscape / Romantic Consciousness’ seminar given by Peter Larkin and Allen Fisher: Glasfryn, 23 April 2016

‘If I say I am I then the subject and the object are not unified in such a way that no separation can be undertaken without infringing on the essence of the I. On the contrary, the I is only possible via this separation.’ (Holderlin, Being, Judgement, Possibility)

To represent the I by saying ‘I am I’, the I must be both subject and object. In apparently representing identity, the I in fact becomes divided.

This splitting is relational: in order to be aware of itself, the I must reflect itself. Self-consciousness is only possible through separation into the I as subject and the I as object – a relationship where the terms are relative.

That might entail that we are perpetually divided, as Schelling states: ‘Man is eternally a fragment’ (System of Transcendental Idealism). But Larkin suggests that does not necessarily mean that the I is just a pure particle, isolated in itself. It can be better envisaged as a broken ligature, branching and joining, he says: a particle takes part.

The I does not exist entirely alone and separate in itself; its being includes the objects with which it interacts, is made up of the relation between the I and the not-I. Larkin suggests that the sphere that encompasses the I and the not-I, and makes their relation possible – mediates their relationship, perhaps – is like Wordsworth’s ‘unfathered vapour that enwraps’ (The Prelude, Book Six) – it enwraps the I and the not-I, and in turn cannot be presented directly, only evoked indirectly through an aesthetic production.

He drew our attention to such an aesthetic engagement with the not-I in Wordsworth’s ‘Incipient Madness’ (1797), where the speaker, having walked across a moor and into a ruined hut, is attracted to a shard of glass.

‘A broken pane which glittered in the moon

And seemed akin to life.’

Here the inanimate seems to exhibit a strange animation, as if it is a living being, and in this way it seems to offer up a relation: the object, as demonstrated in the broken pane, is a fragment, a broken ligature, offering a join to the subject. The I forms a relationship with a found object, engaging with it to reflect on itself.

‘grief … fastening on all things

That promise food, doth like a sucking babe

Create it where it is not.’

The I fastens onto the object, projecting its feelings onto it. As Novalis says, ‘Feeling cannot feel itself. Feeling cannot be represented to itself because it is prior to reflection. It is the very basis of philosophy, yet it cannot be represented. If it could be, there would be no philosophy.’ (Fichte Studies)

The feeling itself cannot be reflected upon because it precedes reflection, but the desire to grasp the feeling is what drives the speaker to engage with the object, fastening upon it like a baby looking for food. While it cannot present feeling directly, the aesthetic engagement of the poem enwraps it by evoking the relation between subject and object.

The choice of object, in this case, emphasises the aesthetic act in that the object itself is reflective – it too seems to enwrap other things and interact relationally with them.

‘That speck of glass was dearer to my soul

Than was the moon in heaven.’

The pane’s glitter, which endows it with a sense of life, is derived from the moon, and the moon appears a second time here in the comparative simile, conjoined with and defined in relation to the speck of glass. The moon here is what Larkin calls ‘an emerging image’, not fully revealed, still always part of what it emerged from. The broken pane – eternally fragment, always incomplete – forms relations with other things, other fragments, which join like broken ligatures. As it interacts relationally with the moon, so it offers up a relationship to the I, to become the counterpart in its soul or being.

Looking at the speck of glass is also metonymic for reading a poem or looking at a painting. The broken pane creates a frame, like the technique of hollowing used in Romantic painting, where darker brushstrokes enwrap a portion of light to create a frame within the frame of the picture. Fisher demonstrated how this technique can be seen in many of Turner’s paintings, for example his storm scenes, such as Fishermen at Sea (1796). Here an egg-like basin is scooped out of the ocean, while a break in the stormclouds reveals a tiny disk of moon, the hollowing in the sea reflecting the hollowing in the sky. In the framing hollow of clouds, the moon is enwrapped as it is in Wordsworth’s broken pane. A relation is formed in the isomorphism between sky-hollow and sea-hollow which evokes what Novalis calls ‘the mirror of the strange play of relations among things’.

J.M.W. Turner, Fishermen at Sea, 1796

J.M.W. Turner, Fishermen at Sea, 1796

As the moon is enwrapped by the clouds, the tiny figures of the fishermen and the tilting mast diagonals are almost enwrapped by the womb-like hollow of the waves. The tragic scene seems to enact Holderlin’s comments on tragedy:

‘In the tragic, the sign is in itself meaningless, without power, but that which is original is openly revealed. For really the original can only appear in its weakness, but insofar as the sign in itself is posited as meaningless, it equals zero [i.e. nothing] but the original, the hidden ground of everything in nature can represent itself. If nature genuinely represents itself in its strongest gift, the sign again equals zero [i.e. everything].’ (Significance of Tragedy)

In tragedy, human figures appear in weakness to amplify the strength of natural forces. Above the fishermen, Turner’s hollowing frames an image of the cosmos, an awe-struck vortex that pulls the viewer into the painting as the fishermen are pulled into the sea. The tragic enacts our own attempt to grasp the infinite.

The moon appears small and distant, presented in its ‘weakest gift’, as Holderlin puts it, not in its ‘original’ form, but framed as a representation, a sign, the glitter. As we have seen, the whole of nature or being cannot be depicted directly, in its ‘original strength’, so Turner, like Wordsworth with his speck of glass, uses the miniature to evoke the vast. The original can never be attained, it divides into object and subject as we attempt to enclose it, but it can be enwrapped as a glitter on the pane in the relational reflection of the I.

The painting and the poem as aesthetic production allow us to gain an insight into being as relational. Painting and poem are also themselves objects in the world, offering a relation to the subject through which being can be expressed.

This is what Novalis suggests when he comments that words constitute ‘a world in themselves’. ‘Their play is self-sufficient, they express nothing but their own marvellous nature, and this is the very reason why they are so expressive, why they are the mirror of the strange play of relations among things.’ (Fichte Studies)

Fisher distinguishes between the contemplative, where you are taken away from yourself, and the meditative, where you are sent back to yourself. The poem and the painting seem to offer both contemplative and meditative engagements. We can be pulled out of ourselves into the framed perspective of the painting and the narrative scene of the poem, and we can be thrown back onto ourselves by the surface glitter of brushstroke colours and the relational play of language.

Poetry and art are always incomplete and imperfect because they are driven by a striving for the unattainable and unrepresentable, which by its very nature can never be attained and represented or it would not exist. They too are broken panes, fragmentary ligatures branching, asking to be completed in the engagement of the viewing subject.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks


  1. * allenfisher1 says:

    Dear Steve,

    This looks really good, thank you. I’ll get to it soon.

    best wishes, Allen


    Posted 2 years, 10 months ago
  2. * allenfisher1 says:

    I wondered about your use of tragedy here. ‘As the moon is enwrapped by the clouds, the tiny figures of the fishermen and the tilting mast diagonals are almost enwrapped by the womb-like hollow of the waves. The tragic scene seems to enact Holderlin’s comments on tragedy …’ If this refers to Turner’s painting ‘Fishermen at Sea’ are you sure it is tragic?

    Posted 2 years, 7 months ago

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