Leonardo_da_vinci, Deluge Drawing

Water assumes the shape of its container. Water that overspills its container immediately assumes the shape of the universe.

Meaning also assumes the shape of its (semiotic) container. But to fulfill the Romantic aspiration of saying the Unsayable—in the case of poetry, to push language beyond words—is to record the shape of spilled meaning.

The shape of water, thanks to the renown of the recent film of that title, is a phrase currently flowing through the public mind. Quite apart from the movie, it is a phrase worth pondering.

Georges Bataille, as always under the spell of Surrealism, was thinking along these lines when he wrote: “For academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape. All of philosophy has no other goal: it is a matter of giving a frock coat to what is, a mathematical frock coat. On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit.”

For Bataille, shapelessness was an abject, not a sublime, condition—and all the more desirable for that! But his examples don’t quite work—a spider possesses a beautiful form, unless somebody steps on it. And spit presumes the higher form of a spitter. Here we see Bataille concerned mostly with squashing and spitting on Enlightenment ideology. But his point about shapelessness, about a universe that “resembles nothing,” has always fascinated me.

Speech, for its part, resembles its object as little as writing resembles speech: overspilling the demarcations of law-giving Logos is something that resembles nothing. Spillage, then, is the formless form of non-resemblance. Only something that resembles water is capable of spillage, of non-resemblance. This ontological spillage—this propensity of certain systems to exceed their own parameters—must finally be represented as a fit of water.

Violating the perspectival symmetries centered on the perceiving eye/I, Leonardo da Vinci’s eccentric Deluge Drawings, executed toward the end of his life, unbalance the humanism of his Vitruvian man to show the shapelessness of primal Being.

In an earlier post, I considered the Deluge Drawings as exemplars of the poetics of complex systems; here I will consider them, all too briefly, as a form of writing in their own right—as legible spillages, enactments of the semiotics of non-resemblance.

Leonardo_da_Vinci, Deluge Drawing

In this exercise, any one of the Deluge Drawings may be translated into alphabetic writing—into graphic squiggles almost as irregular as the Drawings themselves—to say: Of the four Empedoclean elements, water is the most fiery, the most earthly, the most aerial. Water dissolves the properties of the other three elements into itself. Water does not reflect, but, as alchemical Alcahest, both drinks and drowns the world in the same way that the word does.

We look for the life-sign of water among the stars. Indeed, we could define life itself as “a catastrophe of water.” This vital catastrophe is evident in Leonardo’s Deluge Drawings. The fact that they are drawings rather than paintings brings them in line with the written word. They can be read as absolute letters.

The Deluge Drawings present the allegory of a writing hand still finding its way, filling the page not with script but with scribbles. They signify the meltdown of those lawful symmetries that Leonardo spent his life recording. If they are pictograms—signs that resemble what they signify—then they are signs that resemble non-resemblance, or universal spillage. If they are ideograms—signs that depict ideas—then they depict the idea of the triumph of formlessness over form.

As writing, the Deluge Drawings might be classified as semasiographic, i.e., script (like musical or mathematical notation) not tasked with transcribing speech. Yet it’s also tempting to imagine the Deluge Drawings as glottographic, i.e., as script (like the Roman alphabet) that renders vocal utterances as visible marks. What inhuman voice would correspond to such writing?

Modernism begins with such considerations—with attempts to render, within form, the force, necessarily formless, that gives rise to form. To “misread” the Deluge Drawings as writing thus situates them as precursors to the Chinese written character as misread by Pound or the Mayan glyph as misread by Olson.

Pound, for his part, argued that Chinese writing was a “vivid shorthand picture of the operations of nature.” From this wrong reading Pound drew a right, or at least a righteous, precept: that poetic figuration “consists in following as closely as may be the actual and entangled lines of forces as they pulse through things.” Likewise, Olson saw in the Mayan glyph a form that “unfolded directly from content (said content itself a disposition toward reality which understood man as only force in field of force containing multiple other expressions).”

Both Pound and Olson push the idea of the forcefield, which had become prominent in nineteenth-century physics, as a paradigm of poetic meaning. (And of course Pound and Olson are guilty of imposing this figure of Western science upon artifacts from non-Western cultures.) Relevant to my purpose here is the fact that physicists first tried to understand forcefields (electromagnetic fields) using the principles of fluid mechanics. As if rehearsing the insights of the “first philosopher” Thales, who explained that “all is water,” the basis of physical reality was reconceived in Maxwell’s equations as a kind of fluid circulation. Forcefields are haunted by the powerful ghost of water, overflowing the constraints of both Newtonian science and traditional poetics.

Yet the figure of the forcefield still wears Baraille’s “mathematical frock coat.” Its symmetries are revealed by scattering iron filings on paper laid over a magnet. Leonardo’s Deluge Drawings, however, anticipate the discovery that the universe evolves by breaking its own symmetries, a process whereby even the most stable systems prove susceptible to fluctuation, boil-over, spillage. At such points, the past of the universe no longer resembles the present or the future. And the sign of poiesis becomes one of non-resemblance.

Spillage, whose synonym is turbulence, is a mode of matter-in-motion that shakes off Bataille’s “mathematical frock coat.” Mathematicians have tried to analyze turbulence by decomposing it into a cascade of whorls and eddies—yet the motion of systems in chaos resists precise mathematical modeling. In such systems, what happens next cannot be known in advance—and a “universe that resembles nothing,” whose synonym is the Absolute, begins to be revealed.

A vestige of the Absolute remains too in the arbitrary, contingent shapes of the letters of the alphabet—their rills and runnels are coagulations of an untamed turbulence toward which the poetic Word perpetually tends. The glyphs that Pound and Olson sought were already sitting right in front of them—distillations of the Deluge.

Originally Published: April 5th, 2018

Born in San Antonio, poet Andrew Joron was raised in Germany, Massachusetts, and Montana. He earned a BA in the philosophy of science at the University of California at Berkeley, where he studied with anarchist philosopher Paul Feyerabend. Addressing the trajectory of his work in a 2010 interview with poetry blogger...