Getting In Shape by George Merrill

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Sometimes a waterspout is more than just a waterspout.

Years ago, I saw a waterspout. I’d not seen one before. I was on a sailboat on Long Island Sound. I watched until the waterspout was finally spent. The sight was mesmerizing.

I’d been sailing on the Connecticut side of the Sound; the waterspout appeared near the Long Island shore. The cloud hung low above the horizon. Below the cloud, the spout undulated as hoses will when first filled with water. It slowly and deliberately moved this way and that until finally it stabilized. The display lasted about three minutes. The spout was gradually assumed into the cloud.

Vortices, whether tornadoes, water spouts, dust devils or the whirlpools of descending water, have always excited the human imagination. The fascination may be associated with something as sublime as God speaking to Job in a whirlwind or Jacob’s ladder that’s often pictured as a spiral staircase.

Witnessing vortex action can be a negative one, like the commonplace fear that the whirlpools from a draining bathtub or toilet often produce in children. These childish fears were regarded universal enough that Mr. Rogers, in one of his neighborhood series, addressed the issue and reassured children that they would always be safe from harm and never be drawn down and away with waste water. Perhaps the fear is inspired by the power a whirlpool demonstrates. It has the capacity to suck anything down and make it irretrievable – not unlike the tornado that adults fear can flatten and then draw almost anything up and toss it away.

The fascination with the activity of vortexes is found in documents dating from ancient times among the Aztecs, the Greeks and Romans, the Arab and Asian cultures and into the twenty-first century here in the west. The nature of various kinds of vortexes was understood to reveal the basic structure and function of the universe. They were frequently regarded as divine manifestations. The character of the vortex appeals to something deep and primal in the human soul.

Eliot Weinberger, in his book, An Elemental Thing, explores the cultural myths that have appeared at different times and places worldwide. What is striking in his research is how he discovers close similarities in the vortex images that appear in widely disparate mythic creation traditions. They may represent creation, destruction, divine activity or the workings of our minds.

Some historic instances include:

In 500 BC, the Taoist tradition held that the “the universe produced ‘chi,’ the life-giving breath, and it was like a whirlpool” Another example; the Buddhists describe their concept of Nirvana as “eternal peace in the vortex of evolution.”

In 203 AD Plotinus, a Roman general believed; “the enlightened soul returns to its origin, which is a whirlpool,” and in 1920, poet T.S. Eliot wrote more ominously about vortices: “Vortex is the end of time.”

It seems that images portraying vortices occupy a place in our primitive consciousness; what Carl Jung described as our “archetypal consciousness.” These are archaic patterns and images that derive from our collective unconscious by virtue of our being members of the same human race.

I unwittingly discovered I carried similar archaic patterns in my own unconscious. It revealed itself as I was trying to give a shape to formlessness.

Some years ago, I presented a photographic exhibit at the Academy Art Museum in Easton. The theme was the Genesis epic of creation. I produced photographs to illustrate selected texts describing various acts of creation. The first image presented me with a significant challenge.

“Now the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”

Something without shape and void does not lend itself to being photographed. What could I do with that?

I decided to fabricate my own negative. I did this by putting printer’s ink on a glass plate. I let my imagination go wild and made fanciful finger paintings, hoping that something would take a shape that would in some metaphoric way suggest the shapeless and barren universe that preceded the first act of creation.

The glass plate would serve as my negative which I would then place in an enlarger to make positive prints from it.

The last time I’d done anything like this was finger painting with my children when we were stuck indoors on a rainy day. We’d put blobs of paint on paper and then just let ‘er rip, smearing colors everywhere, guided only by high spirits and atavistic impulses. Actually, it was great fun for all of us, real play without any rules or limits except being careful not to get any paint on the rug. The table was big enough to accommodate that constraint.

My children were not of an age to artistically render recognizable objects or figures of any kind. What they produced were pure abstractions, some of which were delightful albeit inscrutable. The pleasure they felt I would guess was as much tactile as it was aesthetic, and the surprise that their five fingers could indeed create something out of nothing excited their imaginations.

In creating glass negatives, I followed my instincts, as much as my adult needs for control would allow me, and came up with some bizarre and goofy looking messes. Still, as much as I was having fun with this, I had an agenda to finally to come up with some kind of image – a paradoxical one in the sense that a black and white image would suggest its very opposite, no image, no shape, no form. I was trying to give shape to the shapeless.

I had my work cut out for me.

Finally, I came up with a glass negative that printed the image accompanying this essay. It was after many attempts. I thought I saw in this image, something (almost) of what I was reaching for, something that was just shy of taking form.

Only a few weeks ago, after I’d read Eliot Weinberger’s essay on the vortex, I was surprised to find that the image I had settled on as the ‘void,’ was in fact the shape of a primal vortex similar to those appearing in so many cultural creation myths. The character of vortices in these cultures is that they represented beginnings and endings, life and death.

What a marvelous thought to ponder; that buried deep within my unconscious – in yours and mine both – lies hidden the blueprint of our very beginnings.

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Letters to Editor

  1. Susan Peel says:

    Beautiful meditation!

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