About the Motionless Ark

Already, he was dreaming of a refined solitude, a comfortable desert, a motionless ark in which to seek refuge from the unending deluge in seclusion and contemplation.
— adapted from Joris-Karl Huysmans (1930 translation by John Howard)

In the seminal novel of the Decadent Movement, À rebours (1884),  the character of Des Esseintes retreated from the society and world that found oppressive and created a home that was to like a motionless ark.  There he collected things that brought him pleasure or interest and he mostly just spent his days contemplating those, thinking about them and thinking through them, as if the things themselves were gateways to paths onto other ideas, more meaningful than the things themselves.

The Symbolist Manifesto, written by Jean Moréas in 1886, had much to say about art and the nature of Truth and Idea.  According the philosophy spelled out in this essay, the Truth must be dressed up elaborately in order to be perceived and cannot be approached directly.  Also according to the version of symbolism laid out by Moréas, it is the job of artists to present natural things in a way that allows the contemplation of what he called their, “esoteric affinity to primordial Ideas.”

While they did not spell it out as clearly at the even more cynical existentialists who would come later, the important truths and ideas that Moréas and his fellows were searching for were the same kinds of things that Des Esseintes was searching for: peace, meaning, and belonging, all beginning with his own experience of life.

This blog is my own version of the same effort.

For some different and some similar reasons as Des Esseintes, I find myself disillusioned with the prospect of truth and meaning in the world as it is ordinarily presented to me.  I am easily overwhelmed by phenomena, and I often seek sanctuary from that threatening flood within my own my mind, in the world of ideas.

The Motionless Ark is a place for me to collect those ideas, a place to contemplate the phenomena of the world and thing through them or beyond them.  For symbolist painters, that was done through by rearranging the elements of the world or by using canonical symbols or elements in non-canonical ways.  For symbolist poets, it was accomplished by elaborate language with oblique reference to things that could be directly described. For the character of Des Esseintes, his contemplation was through human ingenuity and the tools of invention and artifice.

During that period of 1884 to 1886, the group of writers and artists who had been all part of one tradition following Charles Baudelaire began to split.  Those who began to call themselves symbolists exclusively thought that the higher truth and meaning were out there somewhere, even if they could not fully fully comprehended or looked at straight on.  Those who continued to call themselves decadent said that there was no such truth beyond the phenomena, just the phenomena, so why therefore surround yourself with anything more than the most beautiful, fantastical, and pleasurable phenomena?

In my mind it’s 1886 and I’m not sure yet if I will follow the way of the symbolists or the decadents.  I’ve come here through Hegel, Camus, Barth, Binford, White, Douglas, Radcliffe-Brown, and so many others.

Here, in this ark of mine, you will find different aspects of this retreat and this search through phenomena to see what may lay behind them.

Some posts will be musings, essential prose poems of thought and consideration.  Some will be investigations or explanations, as I try to situate things in their proper contexts as starting point for either contemplation or more-informed manipulation of those things as symbols.  Some posts will be analysis of the world through the eyes of theoretical models I have inherited from my various academic disciplines.  Some posts will also be original creative works or translations of the works of those who are currently inspiring my thought.  And then sometimes posts will be purely personal.  I will try to make careful use of categories so that you can easily navigate to the kind of post that interests you and avoid those that do not.

This is a blog about the nature of the world and the nature of human existence, through the veil of one over-thinker’s contemplation.  History, anthropology, literature, and more, all as dressings, as if the sheets lay over ghosts to make them visible.

From within the web of the crystal spider, and wondering which side of the mirror I am on, yours with cordiality and curiosity, fear and wonder, hope and disillusion,

Sylvius L’épouvanté

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