Through Windows: The White Dawn of Modernity

John Phillips

At first light, before the sun is visible, a stillness that is not static hovers for a time, defining in its transience the core of time itself, at once darkness and light, falling, parting; at once veiling and unveiling, the dawn produces inextricable aspects of the same movement: beginning, repeating.  A silver thread appears against the night, a prelude to the rising sun, and signals the imminence of a parting, of a leave-taking and of splitting.  No!  That is a loosened sliver of the silver moon through clouds yet high.  But the cock (deceitful, early) crows three times and the lark joins in the song.  No!  That’s no lark but the nightingale still.  Then the watchman calls the break of day.


Prelude: Before the Beginning

A relatively early work by the British composer George Benjamin, At First Light from 1982, produces a remarkably wide range of sound textures through the application of one main strategy.  While some of the fourteen players of the chamber orchestra produce sharply punctuated phrases, which strike the ear as sound objects, other instruments are producing long melting chords that blur the punctuation.  For instance, at the start of the second of its three sections the sharp interruptions of the piano and percussion are elongated, melted into extended chords, by bass clarinet and contrabassoon and, about 13 seconds in, the strings offer a repeated phrase, which is also each time simultaneously blurred and melted down a tone before dying off.  The piece offers a sustained exploration of the transformations and interactions between these two ways of writing—the punctuation of sedimented sound structures and the desedimentation of melting continuing tones.  But this is not the only kind of interaction that can be traced in the composition.  The title encourages us to think of the piece in terms of the first light of a new day, as the composer says, “as a contemplation of dawn, a celebration of the colours and noises of daybreak” (9).  But the relation—such as it is—between dawn and the composition has already passed through a further mediation.  The technique, as Benjamin points out in his explanation, is inspired by a painting by J. W. M. Turner, one of the Norham Castle series, Sunrise, painted between 1835-40, in which Norham, the twelfth-century castle, is depicted silhouetted against a huge, golden sun.  He writes: “What struck me immediately about this beautiful image was the way in which solid objects—fields, cows, and the castle itself—appear virtually to have melted under the intense sunlight.  It is as if the paint were still wet” (9).  This picture of the dawn appears as if it is still at its own beginning, paint still wet, nothing in it yet clearly defined—so that we might suppose the painting really depicts its own sunrise, its own coming into glorious fruition.  The situation can be read as if Benjamin had seen in the painting a first light for his own At First Light, the dawning of a technique that can be used for “all manner of transformations and interactions” (9).  Both Turner—in what Benjamin describes as the beauty of his image—and Benjamin himself participate in a widespread activity in culture, that is, the celebration of the dawn and the coming of day.  The texts I’m looking at in this paper draw from the tremendous ambivalence that was always potential in the motif of the dawn, so alongside the celebrations of fresh starts and new beginnings, we also find celebrations of failure, foreboding about the future and, in some cases, a complete reversal of the values of light and darkness.  


I begin with these interactions between painting and music and between night and day as a way of introducing a motif that veils a complex web of problems and concerns, not least the question of interaction per se—its conditions and possibilities—behind elegant generic conventions.   The paper explores aspects of the motif of the song at dawn as a way of focusing on certain highly charged transactions between sight and sound and between darkness and light.  The dawn song or alba, to use the generic term (also aube, aubade and Tagelied), reappears in a number of extremely interesting ways in modernist writing and suggests links between the political concerns and philosophical interests of modernism generally.  At its most orthodox the alba dramatizes the regret felt by two lovers as the day comes so soon to separate them.  The word alba derives from the twelfth-century Occitan troubadours, who included it as part of their system of generic concepts.  The Occitan alba is characterized not only by the conventional lament of the lovers but also by the auratic repetition, at the end of each strophe, of the word “alba,” in modern translation, “white dawn,” though in early Romance languages “alba,” from the Latin, simply signifies the colour white.  Later in history the word “dawn” will come to name a specific colour—a kind of pale blue tinged with pink.  The refrain, in the earliest extant albas, responds to the warning cry of the night watchman, who from his tower calls out to his master or friend the lover.  Often, the early alba is spoken by the watchman himself; though more commonly it dramatizes a dialogue between the two lovers interrupted by the watchman’s cry or his piping. 


The alba’s potential was rediscovered in 20th century literary circles by, among others, Ezra Pound, who in 1905 translated the “Belangal Alba,” extant as a 10th Century manuscript written in Latin but with Provençal refrains:

Dawn appeareth upon the sea,

         From behind the hill,

The watch passeth, it shineth

         Clear amid the shadows.

We can regard this as one of the very earliest of Pound’s poems—nearly all of which could be considered as in some sense translations or collaborations—and it is indeed characterized by the self-conscious archaisms and rhythmic balance that he will continue to exploit throughout his career.  He returns to it in the first chapter of his still youthful first book of criticism, The Spirit of Romance, from 1910.  Here he identifies it with the beginning of Romance literature.  But Romance literature, he argues, does not simply begin.  Rather, a dawn—its ghostly entrance—can already be read in the Latin of Sixth Century writers like Cassiodorus, long before the romance tongues, Provençal, Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Catalan, Roumanian and Romansch, had developed much beyond the various corrupt ways of speaking the Latin of Romans.  This phantom dawn, as he calls it, expresses “a foreboding of the spirit” that will become characteristic of the literature of the Middle Ages.  As Pound is cheerfully aware, this dawn before dawn—an apparition as if from the future of a beginning that has not yet begun—rather suspiciously mirrors the concerns of the dawn song itself, and perhaps rather too neatly matches Pound’s own beginning—his first poem a translation of a poem that corrupts the tongue of a language that has already marked its own doom by translation through the inscription of a foreboding that can now be read retrospectively. 


At about this time Pound gave William Carlos Williams a volume of Spanish ballads, the second of four entitled, Poesías Selectas Castellanas, in an 1817 edition.  Williams translated the volume twice, first in 1913, as Translations from the Spanish, “El Romancero.”  The fourth, “El alba nos mira,” is an exemplary and traditional alba:

The day [alba] draweth nearer,

And morrow ends our meeting,

Ere they take thee sleeping

Be up—away, my treasure!        

The refrain is barely recognizable here but the tone is gentle and tenderness marks the discourse of the speaker who urges the lover to wake up and get going.  The second translation, from the 1936 volume, Adam and Eve and the City, dispenses, as we’d expect, with the archaisms, but reinforces the balladic aspects, eschewing enjambment altogether and replacing the alba refrain from the original with an as simple but more idiomatically Anglo-American “get up and go.”  The first strophe runs:

The dawn is upon us

And day begins to grow

Lest they come and find you here

Get up and go.

The tenderness has disappeared, replaced by an increasing impatience.  Now, sounding a little like an advertising slogan, the alba conforms—in its new idiom—more closely still to Pound’s early comments about it.  He had been struck by the ambiguity of its origins, which might have been either popular or courtly just as a number of early anonymous albas might be either.  This fragment could easily be popular:

When the nightingale cries to his mate, night and day, I am with my fair mistress amidst the flowers, until the watchman from the tower cries, “Lover, arise, for I see the white light of the dawn, and the clear day.” (41)

Yet others, very similar, contain references to friends who are cortes, courteous or courtly.  Pound’s fascination with the troubadours reveals an idealization of what he calls “the poetry of a democratic aristocracy” and Carlos Williams noted when interviewed about his early poems that they often alluded to Pound’s fraternity as “a band of poets, more or less isolated”  (Williams I 474).  This idealization of a certain construction of troubadour existence and the skill of the craft--of the power of the trope in the hands of the finder, his skill with the formal intricacies of the strophe--reveals something of the relation between Pound’s political naiveté and his passionate aesthetics.  By this time Pound’s ideal community of singularities included to his delight the great elder statesman of modern poetics, W.B Yeats.  It may be Yeats who provides the most profound sense of foreboding towards the future of a sun that must at all costs not be allowed to rise.  But it is Yeats who also makes possible a grand act of memory regarding the tradition—in English poetry especially.   


The Struggle of the Darkness

 “I have symbolized a woman’s love as the struggle of the darkness to keep the sun from rising from its earthly bed” (W. B. Yeats).

The Occitan alba is highly specialized, answering to the particular medieval requirements of courtly love—for instance, in variants from other parts of the world the watchman’s place is taken by the cock, which would have been beneath the conventions of the courtly song.  But there exist many kinds of dawn poetry found in traditions around the world.  Arthur Hatto’s huge and indispensable survey and anthology, Eos: An Enquiry into the Theme of Lover’s Meetings and Partings at Dawn in Poetry (1965), reveals similarities in some of the formal aspects of dawn song lyrics from around the globe.  While specifying the Occitan (for Hatto, Provençal) variation the term alba has also come to denote the entire genre.  A relatively consistent form governing many interesting variants, the alba can be regarded as a minor though widespread genre.  The dawn song that flowered in medieval European poetry only survives in English in the already parodic imitations of Chaucer and his contemporaries and, later, those of Marlowe, Shakespeare, Johnson, Donne and Milton, and one or two of their contemporaries, by which time it is part of an extraordinary repertoire of literary genres, song motifs and rhetorical tropes that form the discursive web from which modern writing each time emerges.


When Yeats published The Winding Stair and Other Poems in 1933 he included a poem in eleven parts, “A Woman Young and Old,” which, he claims in the dedication, “was written before the publication of The Tower [1928] but left out for some reason I cannot recall” (Collected Poems 462).  The forgetting accompanies a re-membering, which is also a displacement, a severed limb reattached but to the wrong body.  If “A Woman Young and Old” properly belongs to the earlier collection, an earlier period of composition, the poem itself, we quickly gather, echoes in at least some of its parts an earlier age of writing altogether.  Section VII, “Parting,” is an admirable (and parodic) imitation of the alba.  Yeats’ version is as orthodox as one could wish, a dramatic gem of elliptic imitation:

He. Dear, I must be gone

   While night shuts the eyes

   Of the household spies;

   That song announces dawn.

She. No, night’s bird and love’s

   Bids all true lovers rest,

   While his loud song reproves

   The murderous stealth of day.

He. Daylight already flies

   From mountain crest to crest.

She. That light is from the moon.

He. That bird ...

She.                 Let him sing on,

   I offer to love’s play

   My dark declivities.  (273)

In the form of a dialogue, as here, the alba dramatizes an elaborate rhetorical debate between lovers, the male recognizing the first signs of dawn calling him from the bed to the world, the female setting up conceits in a futile if touching attempt to ward off the inevitability of parting and of day.  There are touches in Yeats’ elegant version that echo lines of what seems to have become the standard demonstration model, the lovers’ dialogue before daybreak from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  The lovers’ sentiment is certainly echoed, perhaps ironically, in “nights’ bird,” as well as in the “household spies” and the day’s “murderous” stealth:

Enter Romeo and Juliet aloft at the window

Juliet: Wilt thou be gone?  It is not yet near day.

It was the nightingale and not the lark,

That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear;

Nightly she sings on yond pomegranate tree.

Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.

Romeo: It was the lark, the herald of the morn,

No nightingale.  Look, love, what envious streaks

Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east.

Night’s candle’s are burnt out, and jocund day

Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.

I must be gone and live, or stay and die. (3.v.1-11)

We know that Shakespeare’s version both adopts the tageliet from the primary source in Arthur Broke’s The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Iuliet (which is itself an adaptation of a now lost Dutch original) and embellishes that with an expert transmutation of classical as well as English, French and German forms from courtly as well as folklore sources.  T. J. B. Spencer breaks off from his admirable commentary on the English dawn-song to note that, “a knowledge of the material in the present work has increased this reader’s wonder at Shakespeare’s poetic intuitions” (Hatto 522).  “Poetic intuitions” presumably provoke those elegant condensations of the complex rhetorical webs of tradition that we call poetry.


But that is not the only song of the dawn in Shakespeare’s play.  Romeo and Juliet is structured dramatically around two rather different alba variants.  What is sometimes referred to as “the balcony scene” but which is in fact the first of two window scenes—the curtained balcony in a house like the Globe provides an apt theatrical environment—offers a demonstration of what we might call the mistaken alba, or even the reverse alba, actually quite a common rhetorical form in which the speaker praises his lover by “mistaking” her window for the east and begging to see the light of her love as if it were the rising sun.  The “mistake” is of course a rhetorical conceit:

[A light appears above, as at Juliet’s window]

Romeo: But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?

It is the east and Juliet is the sun.

Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,

Who is already sick and pale with grief

That thou her maid art far more fair than she. (2.ii. 2-6)

There is a lyrical refinement to this famous address in the “Aubade” (or “Song” in some editions) of the laureate Sir William Davenant (who, incidentally, claimed Shakespeare as his father):

The Lark now leaves his watry Nest

   And climbing, shakes his dewy Wings;

He takes this Window for the East;

   And to implore your light, he Sings,

Awake, awake, the Morn will never rise,

Till she can dress her beauty at your Eies. (Grierson, 49)

If we read this as a kind of a commentary on Shakespeare, though it is more than just that, two important aspects come into view.  Firstly, the association of Romeo with the bird is already a developed conceit in Shakespeare’s version, for instance by Romeo’s lines: “With love’s light wings did I o’erperch these walls,” and by Juliet’s lines, “Hist! Romeo, hist! O, for a falconer’s voice/To lure this tassel-gentle back again” (2. ii. 66 and 159-60).  A lark is not a falcon, to be sure, but in the elaboration of this conceit the species blurs a little, while the form of this sophisticated alba shades into something a little more traditional:

Juliet: ‘Tis almost morning.  I would have thee gone—

And yet no farther than a wanton’s bird,

That lets it hop a little from his hand,

Like a poor prisoner in his twisted gyves,

And with a silken thread plucks it back again,

So loving-jealous of his liberty.

Romeo: I would I were that bird. (2. ii. 177-183)

Romeo takes his place among the birds (cock, lark, nightingale, falcon) in a globally represented series.  He is now inextricably associated with the night, love and the secrecy of darkness (“What man art though that, thus bescreened in night/ So stumblest on my council?”), and plays falcon to Juliet, the would-be falconer framed by her window and emanating light.  The second aspect involves the window more precisely.  The last couplet of Davenant’s “Aubade” has his bird beg for the beginning of dawn (strictly, a tautology): “Awake, awake, break through your vailes of Lawne! / Then draw your Curtains, and begin the Dawne” (Grierson 49).  The conceit, justifying Davenant’s inclusion in Grierson’s influential 1921 collection of metaphysical poets, adds a dramatic revelatory note to the scene.  The expected sequence of cause and effect is reversed, with the drawing of curtains bringing dawn and awakening bringing light to the world (we should not even at this stage ignore the echo of the Christian Easter ceremony hinted at here too).   Our attention is drawn to the dramatic aspects of the rhetoric--the east is wherever I produce it, the dawn occurs whenever I evoke it in discourse.  And the curtain veils a power, the power of veiling and unveiling.  Simultaneously veiling and unveiling the power of discourse, the alba in its increasing hyperbole--tightening and raising its tone--fundamentally reveals its limits against the coming of the day--though that too is merely rhetoric.  It is not difficult to read Davenant’s “Aubade” as a kind of hymn to Shakespeare, to the power of his unveiling/veiling rhetoric, the drawn curtain of his dawn drama. (the beginning of theatre).


But returning to Shakespeare we find, of course, that the day brings death, which may be partly why his “star-crossed lovers” are echoed in Yeats’ “A Woman Young and Old.” In Romeo and Juliet the repetition of dawn songs includes a fake one at first with the lovers separated by a window, and a second with both lovers together behind the window, but culminating in a new separation that will be permanent, ending only with their anachronic deaths. So while a hyperbolic dawn brings the lovers together, in the second version the lovers, newly wed, must face the day and their imminent parting.  First the woman is light (her light at the window) then she is dark (protest against the day).  In the first the dawn is allied to Eros; in the second we look forward to Thanatos.


Which reminds us that it is “with the horror of daybreak” that Yeats’s dark woman struggles.  The struggle of the darkness “to keep the sun from rising from its earthly bed” has already in Yeats taken a slightly different form, again highly condensed and demanding considerable elaboration on the part of the critic.  “The Second Coming” from 1922 recalls Shakespeare’s falconry metaphors in its first lines: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer” (187).  Juliet’s “gyves,” the prisoner’s shackles, have suffered a classical Freudian displacement to become the “gyre” of Yeats’s late works—surely one of the most spectacular decoys of modern literature—and Juliet can now be seen as the center of this heavily quoted poem, with Romeo flying off in ever expanding circles, never more to be seen … except that Romeo and Juliet turns out to be yet one more displacement, a relatively inoffensive step away, from a darker and more powerful source—Shakespeare’s earlier mock-epic, The Rape of Lucrece, sometimes considered to be from his pre-dramatic apprenticeship.  Here Lucrece battles with rhetoric to keep the sun from rising and thus exposing her shame.  Stanza after stanza over-elaborates this single insistent wish:

O hateful, vaporous and foggy night,

Since thou art guilty of my cureless crime,

Muster thy mists to meet the eastern light,

Make war against proportion’d course of time:

Or if thou wilt permit the sun to climb

       His wonted height, yet ere he go to bed,

       Knit poisonous clouds about his golden head. (771-7)       

The whole scene in each of its elements can be read as a grotesque perversion of dawn song conventions.  The lovers have been replaced by antagonists, the victim and perpetrator of a vicious crime.  The song occurs before dawn but after the parting, Tarquin, “night’s child,” having already sped off, looking “for the morning light.”  What is the meaning of all these displacements and metamorphoses as they reappear in fragmented form in Yeats’ poems: the married Juliet substituting for the raped Lucrece; the sunburned landscape of the “Second Coming,” too late now for further attempts to stop the dawn, repeating elements of both; and “Parting” reconstituting the urgency of Lucrece with the romance of Romeo and Juliet?


Through the Window

As we have just seen, one major innovation that occurs in the early modern English forms is the introduction of the window.  The Occitan alba, as Hatto points out, “is situated in the open air beneath a hawthorn, one of several trees under which lovers meet in Provençal and old French poetry” (79).  By the early modern English variant, the lovers are ensconced in the bedroom behind windows and curtains, as in perhaps the most famous alba in the English language, John Donne’s “The Sunne Rising,” which begins:

            Busy old fool, unruly sun,

Why dost thou thus,

Through windows and through curtains, call on us?

Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?

There’s not time today to analyze this masterpiece of ironic hyperbole properly.  But we do need to outline some issues that it draws attention to.  The speaker refuses the Copernican system, cognate with the rationality of the new science, the dawning, we know think, of enlightenment, and supplants it with his own hyperbolic claims to power, doubled, as consistently happens in the “Songs and Sonnets,” by an implied claim to sexual power, substituting himself (rising) for the sun (rising), thus reversing the Copernican revolution by taking the sun’s place at the center of the universe: “She’s all states, and all princes I/Nothing else is” (21-2).  This most remarkable substitution will not, as we will see, have been the first or the last time that a writer takes advantage of the sun’s tropic substitutability in rhetoric.  The point I want to draw attention to here, for the moment, is that since the tree is now replaced by the window frame (we might even imagine that the frame is carved of the same wood), the dawn itself is rendered less certain, less inevitable somehow, if only in this ironic hyperbole.


Donne’s hyperbole—a refusal of the light that offends through the window of his speaker’s bedroom—has a precise counterpart in three related works of Rene Descartes.  The first, The World or A Treatise on Light, was written in 1633, the same year that Donne’s works first appeared (two years after his death).  The second, the famous Meditations on First Philosophy, was published less than ten years later, in 1641.  And the third, The Search for Truth by Means of the Natural Light, is of doubtful gestation.  Unfinished and unpublished at his death, the manuscript strikes some commentators as an early work and others as a late one, perhaps an introduction to the main arguments of The Meditations for a popular audience.  It is a three way dialogue (a trio-logue?) during which Eudoxus (“good teacher”)—clearly a spokesman for the Cartesian argument—weaves between the dogmatic objections of the fictional scholastic Epistemon (“established wisdom”) and the common sense but uneducated deference of Polyander (literally “many men”).  Eudoxus begins by promising that despite the daunting scholastic background of Epistemon he can show Polyander a ground for knowledge that will put them on equal footing.  The World, which Descartes also did not publish owing to the condemnation of Galileo by the Roman Inquisition, is a treatise on light, in which Descartes uses the example of words to show that our perceptions—whether of sound, sensation or light—provoke ideas that do not necessarily bear any resemblance to the objects that provoke them.  As he says, he wants to introduce his readers to phenomena where there is what he calls “a difference” between the conception and the perception, between the idea of the object and the perception of it.


As the first two Meditations reveal, the establishment of abstract grounding ideas like cogito ego can be understood as ways of answering the question—or, more accurately for a first or grounding philosophy, solving the problem—of this difference.   The different conception, it seems, indicates the possibility of a certain freedom of judgment—and thus error.  On what basis can responsible judgment be grounded if the conception does not match the perception of what is to be assessed or decided upon—especially if the decision or judgment seems destined always to add content to the perception, as is already evident in the case of words?  Descartes’ classic statement of the problem remains a key instance of the aporia, which, after Kant, will have become known as the empirical/transcendental difference.  The Search for Truth restates the main argument of the 2nd Meditation in a different way.  They both work towards a promise that is fulfilled only negatively—that a ground will be demonstrated that is adequate for building an absolutely certain knowledge of the objective world.  The only ground adequately demonstrated, it turns out, is the one represented by the phrase cogito ergo  sum, which is remarkable for establishing priority for a point that is absolutely irreducible either to any pre-established discursive statements derived from the complex and contradictory webs of previous knowledge, in whatever discipline of the arts or sciences, or to any empirical perceptions, including those produced by memory and imagination.  To put it more simply, the 2nd Meditation pursues a systematic rejection of both scholasticism and empiricism.  And it does so through the economy of the twin figurative conceits of the tree and the window.


The scholar’s method of judgment is more explicitly arborescent in The Search for Truth but the idea is clear enough in the Meditations, more so in the French translation than in the original Latin.  Beginning with the simple clear and distinct idea, I exist (arrived at in the 1st Meditation), Descartes asks the question: “What then is this ego?”  The first kind of answer to be rejected is the establishment of a number of metaphysical levels:

What then did I formerly think I was?  A man?  Shall I say “a rational animal”?  No; for then I should have to enquire what an animal is, what rationality is, and in this way one question would lead me down the slope to harder [here the French edition adds “an infinity of other more difficult and embarrassing”] ones, and I do not now have the time to waste on subtleties of this kind. (17)

As The Search for Truth makes clear at the equivalent moment in its argument, these subtleties belong to the scholastic adherence to ancient metaphysical trees.  The answer set out above is characterized in the unpublished text as the answer that would have been given by Epistemon, the scholastic.  Eudoxus, Descartes’ philosophical ego in this rhetorical exercise, says:

If, for example, I were to ask even Epistemon himself what a man is, and he gave the stock reply of the scholastics, that a man is a “rational animal,” and if, in order to explain these two terms (which are just as obscure as the former), he were to take us further, through all the levels which are called “metaphysical,” we should be dragged into a maze from which it would be impossible to escape […] You see immediately that the questions, like the branches of a family tree, would rapidly increase and multiply. (410)

Not only is this infinite maze like a tree but it also has name, as Epistemon’s stock response reveals when he says: “I’m sorry you despise the tree of Porphyry.”  The paper here seems to parody Father Bourdin’s “Objections,” which had been included with the first Latin edition of the Meditations, and which actually outlines the metaphysical tree in a beautifully dogmatic attempt to dispute the argument we are examining here (which Bourdin has clearly misunderstood):

The inference from knowledge to existence is not a valid one.  Meditate on this for two weeks at least, and your meditation will bear fruit which you will not be sorry to have, if you then cast your eye on the table below. (344)

In his reply Descartes simply exposes this diagram, Bourdin’s “fluttering flag of victory,” as having completely arbitrary classification (352).  In other words it is an attempt at a rhetorical sleight of hand and in fact the connections, the tree’s branches, are not linked by any necessity at all.  Porphyry, after whom the tree is named, had hoped, Descartes suggests, to ground the division into genera and species on an arboreal metaphor so that substance branches into the two species, corporeal and incorporeal etc..  The problem with these trees apparently lies in their infinite fecundity—Bourdin’s “at least two weeks” suggests for Descartes a horrible infinity for finite beings who might wish to ground their knowledge on something more immediate, or at least more temporally economical.  And this is where the window comes in to frame the alternative picture, which will also be rejected.


It turns out that empirical judgment, even when considered as independent of the infinite maze-like scholastic tree, will come up against the same principle—the infinite.  In what is possibly the least well understood passage in Descartes, he demonstrates that our knowledge of objects like, in his example, a ball of wax, cannot be reduced to sense, memory or imagination.  This is because once the wax is subjected to a range of metamorphoses made possible by its becoming warm, we can quickly understand that the number of possible changes the wax might undergo is illimitable.  This infinity is not to be grasped either sensibly or in the imagination for the faculties of sense and imagination, in so far as they are framed in time, are finite: “I would not be making a correct judgment about the nature of wax unless I believed it being capable of being extended in many more different ways than I will ever encompass in my imagination” (21).  Despite the fact that this passage on melting wax sets out a fundamentally negative argument, a number of commentators attempt to derive some scientific factuality about the essence of wax from it.  The whole passage clearly uses the wax to focus on the faculty of judgment (as opposed to the essential nature of wax).  The point is—rather disturbingly I admit—that judgment is neither sensible nor a product of imagination—and thus cannot be explained through experience at all.  The mind is somehow above experience, as his main example here is designed to demonstrate.  He says:

If I look out of the window and see men crossing the square, as I just happen to have done, I normally say that I see men themselves, just as I say that I see the wax.  Yet do I see any more than hats and coats which could conceal automatons?  I judge that they are men.  And so something which I thought I was seeing with my eyes is in fact grasped solely by the faculty of judgment which is in my mind. (21).

The passage does not establish any ground for certainty in objective knowledge, except to say that knowledge of whatever kind must be established through judgment rather than through the passive observing of the mechanical eye.


Descartes’ cogito, as it has become known, represents a power, an ability in the structural sense like translat-ability, rather than a passive point of observation.  Acting on the infinite malleability of the extended world as well as upon the endlessly labyrinthian branches of the trees of previous knowledge, the power of substitution, itself an in principle infinite power, is made possible by the semiotic nature of the empirical world, as outlined in The World, his unpublished treatise on light.  According to this treatise the elements of the world—whether light or sound—are subject in perception to the power of infinite substitutability, that of the thinking mind.  Because the world is not as we perceive it we have the power to substitute anything we want for what we do perceive.  Because we begin in translation we have the power to go on making translations ad infinitum, engaging the bad infinity of the outside and the past with the good infinity of reason’s substitutions.


Furthermore, as his various discussions of method make clear, the demonstration of this power depends upon a further possibility of substitution, an interlocutor willing to take the place of enunciation in the discourse, that is, a reader willing to see, as it were, through Descartes’ eyes—which is the same as turning from the eye altogether in this instance.  Provisionally I’ll call it the dramatic possibility—but we’ll return to it shortly.  The cogito names the possibility of this essentially discursive transaction and I take it to represent the core experience of modernity—whether or not the experience is embraced or disavowed (a crucial ethical and political decision).  I cannot know a man—least of all myself—either through categories (generic trunks and special branches) or by just looking at one. 


So if the window and the tree appear to us as fundamentally different kinds of symbol, that is only because the situation they each separately substitute (and thus veil) repeats the distinction itself—between windows and trees.  Of course, we would want to avoid the notion that they are branches of the same tree—as if we could outline the tree of rhetoric—though these two tropes, which attempt to hide the tropic nature of tropes behind, on the one hand, a certain empirical transparency of evidence and, on the other, a certain substantiation of nature, always fail to do so the moment they are brought together, whether in dichotomy, as in the canonical Cartesian instance, or otherwise, as in this beautiful 17th century ode to Phillis by the sadly neglected John Cleveland, in which Phillis both outshines and antedates the sun:

These miracles had cramp’t the Sunne,

Who thinking that his kingdom’s wonne,

Powders with light his freezled lockes,

To see what saint his luster mocks.

The trembling leaves through which he plai’d,

Dapling the walke with light and shade,

Like lattice-windows, give the spie

Room but to peep with half and eye;

Lest her full Orb his sight should dim,

And bid us all good-night in him,

Till she would spend a gentle ray

To force us a new fashioned day.

Here, the sun through trees produces a window effect as if in cautious peeping at an invisible brightness that puts its own literal brightness to shame.  Just as Gabriel in Milton’s Paradise Lost arrives in Eden at midday but with such brightness that it looks to Adam like a new dawn, the sunlight in Cleveland’s ode appears as night compared to the metaphysical brightness of Philis, or love, whose gentle ray would “force us a new fashioned day.”  The hyperbole of the song at dawn is already something like a new fashioned dawn, in this case producing its own rhetorical window—a trick of the light--to shine through.


A brief reference to a well known 19th Century text should help to make my point at this stage.  Edgar Allan Poe’s perhaps overused yet apparently inexhaustible “The Man of the Crowd” has his narrator—a fairly obvious parody of Descartes—gazing at the crowd from the bow window of a coffee house, and setting its elements—people—into categories of subordination, entering the genera and species of the social being into categorical trees, and imposing this sedimentation on the passing crowd as if they just were automatons covered by hats and cloaks.  His attempts to read the crowd fall at a point during this ironic repetition of the empirical/transcendental difference when he attempts to read a face that apparently signifies difference itself—something neither window nor tree can give access to.  If the satire is directed to a Cartesian subject the more obvious reference point is actually G. W. F. Hegel (the writer of, in Poe’s phrase, “certain German books that do not permit themselves to be read”).  In the section of the preface to The Phenomenology of Spirit, entitled “Present Position of the Spirit,”  Hegel sets out the current state of thought in its dialectical progress through the empirical/transcendental distinction—the ultimate aim is the equalization of the two dimensions.  Empiricism, it seems, was a necessary phase to get the eye to stop rising from the world in search of the clear glory of divine essence.  The eye needed to be got back down to earth before it could take off again with renewed clarity:

The eye of the spirit had to be directed forcibly to the things of this earth and kept there … it took a long time to make attention to the present as such—what was called in one word, experience—interesting and valid. (5)

But now, he explains, the empirical has rooted itself too deeply in experience, become like a tree rooting the free spirit to the senses:

Now the opposite need meets the eye: sense (Sinn) seems to be so firmly rooted in what is worldly that it takes an equal force to raise it higher. (5)

The uprooting of sense from the world will be gradual, we now learn, but old established patterns of thought will not appear changed until the transition—or what he calls the new birth—has been achieved:

Just as in the case of a child the first breath it draws after long silent nourishment terminates the gradualness of the merely quantitative progression—a qualitative leap—and now the child is born, so too, the spirit that educates itself matures slowly and quietly towards the new form, dissolving one particle of the edifice of its previous world after the other, while its tottering is suggested by some symptoms here and there: frivolity as well as the boredom that open up in the establishment and the indeterminate foreboding of something unknown, these are the heralds of approaching change.  This gradual crumbling, which did not alter the physiognomy of the whole is interrupted by the break of day that, like lightning, all at once reveals the edifice of the new world. (6-7 translations amended).

In the light of my previous discussion it should be possible to see that the implication of rational historical progress that is always possible to read in Hegel can be grasped instead, just as easily, as a pattern of repetition, a repetition of the rhetoric of the dawn song—with all its conceits, the new birth, the new day, the new fashion out of old materials etc. and, hopefully, the moment of sunburst glory replacing anxious foreboding.  The Phenomenology is Hegel’s glorious dawn song.  We could be easily tempted to an exploration of night and day, the flight of Minerva and the gray in gray of the philosopher’s dawn and the liminality of dialectical negation but we will leave off here with the observation that Hegel’s dawn repeats Descartes’ in a slightly different way but marks one aspect of modernity as something like the incessant repetition of phantom dawns.


Black Light(e)ning

Hegel’s mixed metaphors identify the roving eye of spirit with the passing of night into day--his eye might be like the sun as it rises and falls or like the waxing and waning moon.  They suggest that the force needed to direct this eye first downwards and then back upwards again can be regarded as if it was a work of cunning construction, the building going on all the time unnoticed until the moment of its glorious unveiling like an aubade, a song at dawn, a great morning erection, as in Pablo Picasso’s striking version.  The building is the work of the night, the work of dreams and the work of anxious memory and mourning, while the dawn heralds a great awakening, an enlightenment and forgetting.  This is the message of the last great modern dawn song before the 2nd world war—Book IV of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.   The call to all Finnegans—a call to a wake and a wake up call—becomes in book IV an explicit address not simply to dawn but to all dawns.  The first version reads, “Calling all dawns.  Calling all dawns to day,” while the final published version melts dawn into down and day into dayne in the now classic: “Calling all downs.  Calling all downs to dayne.  Array! Surrection” (593).  The whole paragraph is dotted with dawns—an aube, an alba, an aubade and the sonne rising as an erection—not so much a dawn song as a dawn chorus.  As the light of the sun becomes evident—if not exactly visible—through the diaphanous stained glass windows of the village church the figures in the window get into animated debate.  One of the effects achieved here is the melting of light into sound, the opacity or invisibility of Joyce’s night discourse—dawn comes but it doesn’t get any brighter.  


As contemporaneous experiments in quantum physics had shown, the speed of photons--the speed of light’s particles--speed itself--can be measured by converting them into sounds.  But by measuring a photon one discovers aspects of the photon’s nature only is it is under the conditions of measurement; so the only knowledge that one can achieve by measuring photons is knowledge about how photons behave under conditions of measurement. Because one can formulate this knowledge only in terms of probabilities the physical sciences are thus reduced to a perpetual dawn song and in this blinding flash the edifice of knowledge suddenly begins to look quite different, and the metaphor of enlightenment is replaced by a literal darkness.


The situation is dramatized in a poem by Mina Loy from 1922, which first appeared in her Lunar Baedeker collection from that year.  “Der Blinde Junge” dramatizes an extraordinary transaction that occurs when the speaker comes across a blind war victim busking on a Vienna pavement.    

The dam Bellona


her eyeless offspring


upon the pavements of Vienna

The first stanza leave no doubt about what is at stake here--this is the result of war--but the personification of war and its victims in Bellona figured as a dam with fresh litter already constitutes a quite complicated condensation.  Bellona is often glossed as the goddess of war in Roman mythology, sometime as wife, sometime as sister of Mars (the proper war god).  But Bellona plays little role in mythology and, historically at least, personifies the force and crucially the noise of battle for certain fanatical Roman cults, satirized by Juvenal, for instance, as clownishly subjecting themselves to horrific self-mutilations.  Bellona is figured often as clad in leather wielding a studded whip.  Burke suggests that she represents the castrating mother--but that’s the least of it.  In the context of the poem the Italian “Bellona” chimes with the Austrian “Vienna” in one of many sound effects and contrasts with the German “Kreigsopfer,” which chimes with “offspring,” reminding us that the essence of war is this difference--not just an abstract “war-in-general” (an English word that is never used) but this Italian cult goddess personifying the energy and noise of battle and having German children.  The pun on “litter” brings the Italian connection further into view with a less than oblique riposte to her ex-lover Marinetti’s notorious 1909 glorification of war as “the sole hygiene of the world.”  It might also be worth recalling that Marinetti had said at the start of the war:

What we need is not only direct collaboration in the splendor of this conflagration, but also the plastic expression of this futurist hour.  I mean a more ample expression that is not limited to a small circle of experts, an expression so strong and synthetic that it will hit the eye and imagination of all intelligent readers. (177)

Loy’s poem has found a direct hit in this respect as the conflagration has literally hit the eye of the victim, rendering it “expressionless.”  And it is the idea that an eye--when it does work--is vehicle for expression rather than simple mechanical receptor of photons, as the post-Cartesian scientific world has always held, that is so suggestive here. What is remarkable about the poem is how the point of view of the speaker, the speaker’s eye, becomes more and more focused on the single sightless eye of the victim.  The poem draws attention to both these seers--the seeing and the unseeing--in a transaction that literally sparkles with darkness in an exchange between fundamentally incompatible elements as each of the drama’s characters is reduced by synecdoche to an eye.  The first stanza has already described the victim as eyeless, though the sense of this recalls Loy’s earlier “Parturition,” charting the experience of giving birth--a conceit that “Der Blinde Junge” maintains with admirable difficulty throughout.  A section in Parturition observes:

Impressions of a cat

With blind kittens

Among her legs (7)

The victim then is not so much eyeless as blinded, because the whole central section depends on the most condensed and opaque reflection upon his eye in order to achieve its surprising dawn at the end of the poem.  But it is the sense of pushing against resistance--forces up against each other--that comes through most clearly.  An eye, for which light is meaningless, gets involved by the light of day as an obstacle to light, producing several senses of the word “obstacle” at once. 

Sparkling precipitate

the spectral day


the visionless obstacle

At this stage the obstacle is at once the young war victim clotting up the arterial walkways of Vienna and his blind eye coming up meaninglessly, uselessly, against the sparkling day.  The eye is in the next stanza described as a virginal non-entity:

this slow blind face


its virginal nonentity

against the light

The pushing is reminiscent also of her “Sketch of a Man on a Platform,” supposedly Marinetti again, the genius of whose body (rather than mind):

Deals so exclusively with

The Vital

That it is equally happy expressing itself

Through the activity of pushing


In the opposite direction

To that which they are lethargically willing to go

As in the amative language

Of the eyes  (20)

The amative language of eyes comes up now against an unsurpassable hurdle--no communication occurs between an eye that looks and an eye that cannot see.  But it is just at this point that a strange transaction begins to take shape—not so much face to face but eyeball to eyeball as the speaker in what turns out to be a dialogue attempts through description to make sense of this sight.  The eye alone is in focus:

Pure purposeless eremite

of centripetal sentience

The language is marked less by the way it provides access to any simple sense or referent than by the sound effects it produces: the eremite sounds archaic in English and although it might once have been in common usage, by then the more common “hermit” would have done.  Alliterative with exact rhyming, this is a phrase you hear before any image comes to mind.  However, the sense is precise enough—this blind victim like his useless eye can be compared to a lonely recluse—the purity of its lack of purpose graces it with a kind of ironic sanctity.  The next stanza provides more of the oddly un-descriptive and archaic sounding English:

Upon the carnose horologe of the ego

the vibrant tendon index moves not


since the black lightning desecrated

the retinal altar 

Like the word “eremite” the phrase “carnose horologe” (using words not often heard in English but meaning fleshy or muscular clock) would produce sense more quickly for speakers of Italian, in which the phrase carnoso orologo simply means fleshy or muscular clock.  Horologe perhaps also, and most commentators point this out, echoes the French horloge providing us with another handy link to Descartes or even to the Greeks, who came up with the term in the first place as a way of naming whatever instruments were available at the time for measuring the hours.  The sun dial would have been common, equating the measurement of time to light and to day as if blindness was also hourlessness.  The metaphoricity is powerful: the clock-face and the index-eye evoke an almost concrete condensation, like Umberto Boccioni’s Fusion of Head and Window, which Angelo Bozzolla describes as “an extraordinarily inelegant attempt to fuse together elements of art and reality” (75).  A real window crowns sculptured head with a braided chignon of apparently real hair.  An early poem, “Virgin Plus Curtains Minus Dots,” has already played slightly mocking tribute to Boccioni’s sculptures like these, with titles like Head + House + Light.  On the surface “Virgins Minus Dots,” is an attack on the hypocritical institution of marriage, which hides economic concerns behind idealized notions of love.  The marriage portions, or “dots” (dowries), are what virgins use to buy themselves into marriage, though it is their “prized” virginity which is supposedly for sale.  The line “Bore curtains with eyes” capitalizes on the polysemantic properties of the word “bore”: to pierce with a turning or twisting movement of a tool; to make (as a cylindrical hole) by boring or digging away material (bored a tunnel); to make a hole by or as if by boring; to sink a mine shaft or well; to make one’s way steadily especially against resistance (we bored through the jostling crowd).  And the overtones include the sense of boredom.


Spaces between words manifest the Futurist influence:

Virgins  without dots

Stare                beyond probability

The gap after “virgins” and before “without dots” seems to play on two types of emptiness—the hollow emptiness of virginity and the economic emptiness of the dot-less virgin.  The space after “stare” gives us the sense of “staring into space,” correlating with the emptiness of a future that promises little hope of fulfillment.  The play of senses and meanings connected with sight is pronounced:

“Bore … with eyes”

“Stare … beyond probability”

“See the men pass”

“They               may look everywhere”

“Men’s eyes     look into things”

“Our eyes           look out”

We then shift the gaze (in the poem) from eyes through curtains (and men’s eyes on us) to our eyes in the mirror.  Notice the intrusion of the plural pronoun, which has taken over from the more objective feel (complete with quotations) of the earlier stanzas.  We then move into a ruthlessly cruel satire on the fruitless modes of the lower middle class spinster before entering into the more explicitly critical section, which begins: “We have been taught” …  Some beautifully paradoxical logics of exchange are caught in lines that mix the softness of the images of love with the hardness of the economics, before shifting into a more ambiguous but unambiguously sensual discourse.


In fact the Italian gives us the clearest sign for what may be a literal aspect of the highly condensed presentation of the lines in “Der Blinde Junge.”  I’m reminded of Boccioni’s Technical Manifesto of Futurism, from 1914, where he writes:

We cannot forget that the tick-tock and the moving hands of a clock, the in and out of a piston in a cylinder, the opening and closing of two cogwheels with the continual appearance and disappearance of their steel cogs, the fury of a flywheel or the turbine of a propeller, are all plastic or pictorial elements of which a futurist work in sculpture must take account.  The opening and closing of a valve create a rhythm just as beautiful but infinitely newer than the blinking of an animal eyelid. (303)

Here the mechanical clock, in the spirit of the absolute value of newness, replaces the fleshy old eye.  When reading Loy’s poetry it’s sometimes helpful to pay attention to what I regard as a peculiar literalness in her language.  There’s some satisfaction in the metaphoricity that allows us to see the eye as a kind of measurer of time passing but there is also a literal sense by which the eye simply is a gauge of time.  Einstein was late on the scene in 1904 when, as part of his theory of relativity, he pointed out that time should be understood in terms of relative speeds, and that light is simply speed itself, insofar as there can be nothing faster than light.  By the late 19th century, furthermore, the eye is known to be an extremely limited tool, hardly catching any of the light available, especially not the so called black light that can be discovered off the visible parts of the spectrum.  So when Loy writes “black lightening” I would guess that is exactly what she means.  Beyond the conventional oxymoron of black lightning--a sharp enough evocation of the effect of shrapnel from an explosive as it severs the connection between retina and optical nerve--Loy’s original spelling, corrected in Conover’s edition, allows the phrase to say much more than this (while saying that too, of course).   The dawning of a light considered black opens the understanding to a field of vision that has nothing to do with the eye: rays that move outside the visible spectrum--ultraviolet and infrared light waves--the electromagnetic waves that pass through tele-communications systems, through wired as well as wireless broadcasting, or X-rays, passing through solid objects like those Boccioni sculptures.  The speed of light is time, so the eye is a particular if limited kinetic dial.  The one we are focusing on here doesn’t work. 


The final section comes like Hegel’s daybreak on a first reading.  Having focused with increasing intensity on a single unseeing eye the speaker calls on another sense, this time one the victim also has the use of:


illuminati of the coloured earth

How this expressionless “thing”

blows out damnation and concussive dark


Upon a mouth-organ.

Not only does the literal image (busking war victim) for the first time come into view opening our eyes to the scene of blindness, but also it comes into sound, opens our ears to the noise of the scene.  The eye--blind as it is--expresses itself prosthetically.  The condensation between the mouth of the blind and straining eye (“this planet of the soul/strains from the craving throat”) and the actual mouth in which strains are expressed on the substitute organ, the mouth-organ (rather than “harmonica”), allows us to hear the blind eye’s expression of its blindness.  Thus the transaction between the speaker of the poem and the blind victim, which displace sight onto hearing is repeated in a doubled version of the same transaction but this time between the speaker and poem--the poem now speaking prosthetically for victims of the war, working as if it were an organ for readers to see what the blind have seen.  And reading the poem back again a second time, the breathing of the mouth organ comes alive.