The (free) translation of the bit of Gawain and the Green Knight (Garbaty) is my own… I feel like “Big-man” should have been capitalized. The picture is a photo I took in Wales… when the world was young. accompanying not to the translation
The Misreading engine and the love of battle
“Misreading is the secret engine of life” I told M.
“I’m not sure I know what that means… but I feel like I like it” she said.
The stony field
I had the thought- as a phrase like that- while working on an essay on Gawain and the Green Knight last year. Embedded in my thoughts about the poem, I had misread the title of the song I was listening to- an American Analog Set song “trespassers in the stereo field”. It is a pretty good title itself but on my itunes it abuts a song called “stony chariots” (whose title in its turn makes me think first of the surprising persistence of Bronze-Age culture on Iron-Age Cypress). Anyway, the proximity of the two titles allowed me to read the song as titled “Trespassers in the stony field” instead.
I say allowed because the mistake is not too easy to make physically- the word “stony” having to be embedded in the phase the way it does…. it is as if my state of mind during the song allowed me to jump to the conclusion that the title was “stony field”.
As a fragment, it feels like an image held for a brief but deliberate space.
–I thought of a field with wild tangled green grass with figures (trespassers in some sense) standing starkly but indistinctly on it… and stones weathered, hoary with liken and mystery, crouched aloof but magnetic among the windswept grass. (We see it from a perspective just above grass level).
So organic is the moment of misidentification, that it is difficult to sort out how it comes about… the thought create the reading, or the reading the thought?
Perhaps I would say that the thought in the mind is a mist that aches towards form- nearly has it- and there in the proximity of those two titles the ‘stony” and the “field” the thought is able to suddenly jump the gap like fire and acquire for itself a name -“trespassers in the stony field”.
The name is in some sense given by the thought but it also seems given by the external world and has a power of law…. my thoughts expand into a freshly created space the moment when I misread the title… a space…. of a singular and unique phrase… that makes it feel recognizable yet entirely new. It feels alchemical.
I associate this song with the moment in Gawain and the Green Knight where Gawain comes down into the vale of the green chapel. It maybe my favorite moment in the poem- not for anything that happens but for its impression- and the way that impression- direct and intense yet indistinct- is emblematic of the whole poem’s effect on me.
-The vale a rocky place of gnarled trees (perhaps sporting a red berry like the one that bursts on the hills here now in January) The valley walls are steep the sun is just creeping in. There is dark, vibrant grass in the crevices and mist in the morning clinging close to the ground. The stream runs in shadow through a deep channel overhung by ferns and the grass bursting from the dark- frost dampened- chocolate of the cold vital earth. The stream, deep in its narrow channel, churns and seems to boil in an uncanny way. Beside the stream there is a strange grassy mound- there is no sign of a chapel. Gawain looks around “ofte chaunged his cher” seeking to see the Green Chapel…. Suddenly he sees that there is a door in the mound- a gaping hole (it is presumably an old- perhaps Viking- barrow) and he recognizes that the mound is the Green Chapel.
Garbaty’s note to the line- “ofte chaunged his cher” suggests the act of looking about- turning the face (cher, countenance) this way and that- which is fine- But (perhaps in an act of misreading), because of the uses of “cher” to describe demeanor more broadly- attitude (be of good cheer) I read this line as (also) describing the way that Gawain seeks to “see” the Green Chapel in a way that is not encompassed by the physical search. He changes his “cher”, changes his mental state, trying to be in the space where it is possible for him to see the chapel.
If this is a misreading it is a misreading (like all of the vivid sort) not without foundation. There is a moment earlier in the poem that suggests something similar- Gawain is lost in the wilderness and he sends a prayer to the virgin. Suddenly- as if from nowhere he sees a mighty castle (he was traveling- his view must have opened up)- the moment feels similar.
-There is also the connotation of the familiar ‘hollow hills’ story- A man stumbles upon an entrance to the hills and sees Arthur and his knights sleeping -or something of the sort- he finds gold- maybe he sneaks away intending to come back or he steals something intending to come back… but he can never find the place again. Somehow the conditions were just right and a rift (a door… but not so cleanly built) opened up in the normal world… everything was changed the ordinary becomes something else without losing its previous identity… it opens.
A brief Tutorial
It is this moment and this sense that I associate with this song. From inside the stony field now I look at things- trees, rocks, water, clouds- staring balefully… (I like to stare at things balefully- especially objects… it is additionally good to be wearing a substantial coat while you do this). Stare as if expecting them to change. Stare with hawk’s eyes and twisted, imperious mouth- “What is the magic of this world?”
( In the Knight’s Tale as Arcite lays dieing he asks “What is the world?” if the question merely expresses final confusion…. Represents the lack of response…. Then I don’t want the two questions to be conflated. To me though, they are much the same…. Certainly neither expects what they demand- an answer… I use the word Magic to clarify )
The song gives a form for this experience- it seems to latch onto something and draw it out for a while- pulsing- before letting go and restarting drawing and building to greater intensity- building a structure of connection in tension (yes, you are supposed to think of that). As if one’s gaze pulls on the object, feeling the vitality created and then stops,breathing, allowing the object to remain solid and the world to collapse again into its work-a-day self. Then locking with belligerent joy the battle again to draw with all ones might against the stubborn solidity of the world- the crooked grin as one demands the impossible- “give up your secret!… transform!”.
-The wizard is a misreader someone who shapes things out of nothing… the insubstantial … yet the things he makes are somehow real–
The middle of the song releases, changing, floating with melancholy enjoyment overtop a pulsing that is constant. It is as if the objects have given something up to the demand of the gaze… perhaps not…. but something has been created nonetheless… certainly it is not as if the objects have burst and the moment of annihilation is upon us…. But the pulsing is sustained, sustainable… and the gazer sees or feels he draws out things that form in the air dissolving even as they are formed molded out of the effusions of the quaking but stubbornly real world. (That is the joy- not bursting through and laying objects bare but feeling or imagining you feel the tremor of being felt- of connection across the impossible gap between things… not achieving the impossible (needless to say?)… but still living for its (the impossible’s) intimations).
To my mind this thing I am calling misreading happens all the time to some degree or another… when things not obviously connected in the mind get associated with one another. Here we are talking mostly about the thing we term imagination. Much the way that Hobbes understood it… only I draw a different moral. Hobbes thought of the imagination and dream as ‘mere’ diseased experience- the giving of a horse wings etc… For me, at times at least, this fermenting of experience is the only thing that justifies the whole charade; for a flicker and only a flicker we can speak a new word… open a new space that is formed already belonging.
Its involuntary quality is a strange and powerful part of this experience…. Its crucial that it not feel like a game of permutation and combination… that there is impulse…. It bursts from the head Athena-like unbidden- given as if by a natural form.
I wanted to use the misreading/mishearing of titles/lyrics in songs to talk about this because it is amusing- seeming absurd and banal- and at the same time it seems almost like this process distilled… part of it is the instantaneous quality… suddenly there it is!… (snap) out of thin air!…. And part of it lies in the way that the presence of music speaks to the idea that the accident of The New… is not a true accident at all.
My favorite example of my doing this comes from my mishearing (willfully hearing might be a better way of saying this) a Sea Wolf song. In Middle Distance runner at one point, perfectly reasonably, he says- “ Well my heart is beating hard and I’m off will a shot at the start”… but I first heard “my heart is beating hard… I’m a moth with a shot at the star(s)”. Again, its much easier to hear it the way it was intended but that did not stop me. This phrase represents something important for me… of me…. but I could never have thought that phrase up… not knowing I did so…
The strange thing in all this (or perhaps not so strange) is that it feels something uniquely mine for seeming given that way….
Middle distance moth (link to song)
Still, living in a world in which you had to sit around waiting for salvific accidents would be annoying as hell. One can misread knowingly (knowingness being something of a scale) and get somewhere.
When listening to pinback (admittedly a fairly silly band and not a bastion of clarity and coherence) I allow myself a lot of freedom in hearing the lyrics.
In“The Hatenaughts of melancholy wall” the chorus is “Within a closed system… you can’t win” more or less. It is the kind thing, not unintelligent…. Indeed definitely the sort of thing its good to think about and say at some point… but not spectacular, that, from my knowledge of pinback, is exactly the kind of thing I would expect them to say…
I know that this is what they are saying but to make it suit me better I imagine some kind of jumbled alteration between ‘within a closed system’ and ‘without a closed system’ ‘you can’t win… caught in between, in a kind of friction straining to break free but if you where to break out of the system then the game would collapse of course.
dilemma (δί-λημμα “double proposition”)
As I explore the things that interest me I want to keep searching for an account of desire that better describes the way it both feeds on the action of peeling away, of constantly refining, -shearing itself free of the mesh, and covering film of definition, solidity and pinned-downness and at the same time relishes the net of things, the tangle. To explain as well the potency in what is residue (and so not direct fuel for desire) and the unexpected tug in the moment of thwarting (when the tree remains solid and shakes free of the lines of connection we have forged to it)- to develop a better theory of the love of battle.
“Hatenaught of Melancholy Wall” rogue version 1st verse
“Wizard making….. alota emotion
“Wizard making….. alota emotion
Squirrels will mouth (Squirrels run off)
You know you’ve seen them
Sharks attack across your bow
You’re Pontius Pilot you will defeat them
Smoke on the rock
But its alright now (But you’re wrong right now)
“Wizard making….. alota emotion
(or –“wits are making… another emotion”-comes to the same thing)
Same as above
(energy is condensed in preparation by the repeated musical phrase)
(The conjuring of images kicks in)
Squirrels will mouth (and also run off)(mouth like talk back but also open vast maws that threaten the abyss)
You know you’ve seen them
Sharks attack across your bow (For a moment the squirrels were the sharks running across your bow… but now we are safely in a- metaphorical- aquatic environment… whew)
You’re Pontius Pilot (wait… I am? Yes, you are.) you will defeat them
Smoke on the rock (Clearly an aquatic hazard… but its actually the smoke that is key here… the hazard is the imminence of something… something suggested in the play of smoke and light…. That suggests something beyond the solidity of the rock might burst forth)
But its alright now (But you’re wrong right now… its only smoke after all)
(The fabric of the world holds)
Without a closed system….
within a closed system….