Work has become the habit of a lifetime, and a habit is hard to break. So, even though I have been retired for seven years, I wake up each day believing that I must produce something. What is produced is not irrelevant, but it is a minor concern compared with the unswervable drive to be productive.
That is why I continue to write this blog; it is why I keep making new photographs — compelled like William Blake’s Los, forging link upon link of a continuous chain.
Which is why, visiting my friends I cannot help but carry my point-and-shoot around in my pocket and take it out at seemingly random moments to point and shoot. Each visit I make, a theme arises, unbidden but clear. One visit, I photographed ceilings and floors — it is amazing how much I could find there. (Link here). It is in these details that I find design: and it is the design rather than content that tickles my eye. (Link here).
But that doesn’t mean content doesn’t count. This visit I began photographing randomly, as I do, making pictures of their cats, of birds, of the woods behind the house. But more and more, my camera kept finding circles. Circles, curves and arcs.
It seemed as if one of the marks of human industry is the circle. Nature allows few of them, choosing a great deal more vertical and horizontal lines, such as trees and horizons. But the circle is human; it is idealized.
Throughout the house, I kept finding them, in pots, in lamps, in clocks, dishes and sculptures. Round is an idealized form, almost Platonic. Industrial.
Certainly, I remembered the Zen ideal of the enso, or circle, which is drawn swiftly with the sumi brush, in a single swish, or perhaps two. It is often incomplete, and usually scruffy with brushstroke. It is meant to symbolize enlightenment, but also the great emptiness of the universe. It is an expression of the Japanese esthetic ideal of wabi-sabi, or the beauty of imperfection, incompleteness or impermanence.
It is very different from the Western concept of the ideal, or perfect. A perfect circle is difficult to draw freehand. The Greek painter Apelles once left a perfect circle on a wall in the home of his rival, as proof that he had been there.
More famously, the Italian Renaissance painter Giotto, when tasked by the Pope to demonstrate his mastery, scribed a perfect O in red paint.
A Canadian math teacher from Ottawa, Alexander Overwijk, once made up a story of winning the 2007 World Freehand Circle Drawing Competition in Las Vegas, as a means of getting the attention of his students. (The fiction went viral, and you can find it all over the internet, as if it were real). He was able to draw such a circle on the blackboard for his class. (Link here).
But perfection is boring. It is abstracted from the real world, a world of imperfection, incompleteness and impermanence. The real world has jagged or fuzzy edges, it is left perpetually unfinished, it is ambiguous.
As I moved about the house, I kept finding not only circles, but curves and arcs, the incomplete circles.
The 18th century philosopher Giambattista Vico wrote of the historical cycles of recurrence. Time, he implied, was not a straight line, but a circle. We see these cycles and epicycles in our own lives, inarticulate as infants and incoherent in old age dementia. Our lives recapitulate in our children’s lives, as ours recycle those of our parents and grandparents.
Weeks cycle through from Monday to Monday, months from January to January. The clock on the wall from noon to noon.
In Finnegans Wake, James Joyce begins the book with the end of a sentence that began at the finish of the book, “bringing us by a commodius vicus of recirculation” to the ouroboros of time and history — and the story.
William Butler Yeats, in his A Vision, gives another version of the cycles of history, which in his case is paired with the phases of the moon. In Vico’s version, history has four stages; in Yeats, there are 28 phases.
(The moon is one of those few natural circles, although, it should be pointed out, it is only perfectly round once a month. A second natural circle is the eye’s iris, from which I see the circles I photograph.)
“In my beginning is my end,” wrote T.S. Eliot in East Coker — one of his Four Quartets. “In succession houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,/ Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place/ Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.”
“In my end is my beginning.”
Round planets circle round suns; Shakespeare’s Puck promises he “will put a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes.” Now a moon named Puck circles the seventh planet of the solar system.
As I continued to make pictures — and I wound up with 97 of them over a four-day visit — they tended to diverge from the circle to the arc, finding that incompleteness more interesting visually. The arc implies rather than states. It suggests; it doesn’t insist. It is metaphor, not fact.
Curves are human, they are sensuous. Straight lines and squares are the stuff of Procrustes, something we overlay on the natural roundness of delight to pretend there is something schematic about the world, something we can graph and diagram. Something we can make use of.
But the curve gives us motion, change, the complexities of the calculus. It is Ovidian, not Platonic. It is pleasure; it delights the eye. In the eternal battle between mind and body, the body has all the fun. The mind is a doughty schoolmarm.
The metaphor is real. My wife died two years ago and now I am meeting my ex-wife again, after 50 years.
And so, I keep finding these circles and arcs, these bows bending like the curved universe Einstein posited. They delight me.
Click on any image to enlarge