Posts By: estarser

The Renaissance of the Prosphorion

       We have just received documentation of an extraordinary event that took place in Istanbul this past week, one which seems already to have created a stir amid associates of the Order of the Third Bird.

       A number of Birds of the Order, it is reported, held an Action of the Prosphorion, a remarkable Protocol recently resurrected from our very own archives, in an instance, among many others, of fruitful exchange between the Order and ESTAR(SER). Although versions of this Protocol have remained in continuous use, through word-of-mouth channels ultimately traceable to the very 1940s Istanbul milieu that first discovered it among antique sources, the researchers of ESTAR(SER) pride themselves on leading the charge for its systematic revival.


       A group of latter-day Istanbul Birds gathered in that city on a Friday in late January, and drew lots to determine which of their number would act as the “Representative” – that is, undergo a series of psychospiritual exercises designed to empty out the self and replace it with the being or emanation of an object presently missing, far away, or long gone. On this occasion the object in question was the wall that once encircled the old Istanbul neighborhood of Galata.

       We draw what follows from reports by a number of the Birds who were personally involved, on the condition that we omit the more intimate of the revelations and encounters of the Action, particularly beginning with the phases of the Prosphorion known as “Abscission” and “Veillance.” However, the general atmosphere of the events – though perhaps not as charged as it was for the participants – can still be reconstructed for our readers.


       The Representative, having entered what is called the stage of Radiance – in which the being of the Wall of Galata shone forth from what had been the lineaments of her body – began her path in disoriented and halting fashion, a stranger in a changed city, but slowly recovered her natural regal bearing. The Wall, wending its way, was seen to halt pedestrians and vehicles in their tracks by a single raised hand. At each turning, the bustle of city life paused, if only to blink once and continue, at the sight of her.


       The Wall’s increasingly sure path led it among the building supply shops and family hardware outlets of Galata as the afternoon waned. The streets bristled with signs and portents, as with sparks of static discharge.


       Eventually, as we gather, the procession of supplicants following the reincarnated Wall reached what appeared to be a dead end. The Wall desired to reach a certain one of its former gates, but was blocked by new construction and the maze of shops and depots. The Wall spoke in a human voice to ask for directions to this gate, insisting to a group of bewildered and half-hypnotized shop owners and delivery clerks that it must be just around the corner, despite all appearances.


       After some negotiations, the procession was led deeper into the labyrinth, by way of a short, steep flight of stairs into the basement floor of a building. Undersea light filtered down from an unusually large central skylight several stories above; workmen in small alcoves bent over indefinable tasks and objects; a bucket swung from a rope disappearing into the haze above. Up another spiraling flight of stairs, around a corner, and by way of an unexpected second story exit to another street, suddenly it was before them – one of the remaining fragments of the original wall of Galata. A passage through the wall – the gate – linked two anonymous and disused pockets of Istanbul. An elevated train thundered by.

       It was precisely at this point of revelation and reunion, we are told, that the Prosphorion Protocol demanded an act of renunciation and negation (or “Abscission”). It was a lesson for some, and very moving for all; but here is where the outsider must step back and be silent.

       The recent revival of the Prosphorion Protocol and attendant Protocol of the Representative appears to be one of the more fascinating and promising developments within the Order. Further information, documentation, and meditation is welcome.

Embodied Thought


       “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (1845) – the story by Edgar Allan Poe famously taken for reality by a readership enamored of mesmerism and animal magnetism, and concerning an individual whose life is unnaturally and gruesomely prolonged by these arts – inspired a piece of enthusiastic correspondence from a certain Dr. Robert Hanham Collyer, a moderately successful traveling lecturer of the sciences and pseudo-sciences. “I have not the least doubt,” he wrote to Poe “of the possibility of such a phenomenon; for I did actually restore to active animation a person who died from excessive drinking of ardent spirits.”

       It was this same Collyer who had, some years earlier in the Sunday edition of the Albany Argus, described experiments in which he had caused a lady to perform an example of “the same class of phenomena which is the wonder of travelers in the east.” The lady, in essence, had been asked to gaze into a cup of molasses (though any “dark liquid” would suffice, adds Collyer) in order literally to see the reflection of thoughts and mental images that the doctor was actively beaming into the syrup. “When the angle of incidence from my brain,” he explains, “[is] equal to the angle of reflection from her brain, she distinctly [sees] the image of my thoughts at the point of coincidence […] she [sees] persons and things in the fluid only when the angles of thought converge.”


       Collyer further explains this unusual optical phenomenon in his 1843 Psychography, or, the Embodiment of Thought; with an analysis of phreno-magnetism, “neurology,” and mental hallucination, including rules to govern and produce the magnetic state – the “magnetic state,” which Collyer also calls “congestive,” being the mesmerized state. The book begins with an aggrieved argument for the author’s priority in the invention and diffusion of the new art of phreno-magnetism – in which specific phrenological organs (for example amativeness or secretiveness) can be magnetized to produce related behavioral effects – and a lament on the recent and spurious proliferation of such organs.


       Collyer then lays out, in the book’s main body, the art of psychography: the ability to project a mental picture, or “embodied idea,” upon the brain of another person, and of that other person to observe and describe that picture. It is a form of mind-reading entirely reliant upon the fixed and unmoving image, likened to the results of the “photographic process of Daguerre,” and enabled by a “concentrated and undivided effort of the will.”


       Collyer likens the phenomenon to the optical illusion known as persistence of vision, as when “a lighted stick makes a fiery arc” or a series of discrete sketches appears as an animated cartoon. He also compares psychography to the negative afterimages caused by overstimulation of the eye’s photoreceptors. But the most dominant vocabulary is that of photography, in which the “internal nervous substance” is the photographic film and the magnetically-enhanced act of attention a kind of chemical bath. Collyer writes: “Suppose attention to be a greater than usual development of electric action in the brain, how strangely akin to the recent experiments of Daguerre!”


Those who fail to pay sufficient attention, indeed, squander the brain’s electric potential and overlook a dense network of “messages between objects in the external world and the inner powers of mind.”

       Collyer specifies that the sender of the psychographic image must first “embody” in his own mind the image that he wishes to communicate. For example, if the recipient is to describe a person or location she has never seen, the sender must first impicture it, so that the recipient can relay the details of its pictorial composition. What is most fascinating about the process is the question of how much artist’s control, as it were, the sender has in this process of “embodiment” – especially considering that mental/emotional image-complexes associated with persons and things are often highly individual and eccentric. One of our ESTAR(SER) researchers, for example, insists that his entirely involuntary though deeply-rooted mental image of Plato, for whatever reason, includes the information that he was located not in Greece but somewhere on the Central Asian steppe.


A true psychographic transmission would of necessity include such eccentricities – something of a problem for those wishing to ascertain its veracity, since the correct transmission of the message “Plato” might result in a crystal clear image of Genghis Khan.

       What makes such a transmission possible in the first place, of course, is the “nervous fluid,” the versatile bio-electricity so beloved of the mesmerists. Collyer’s insight was that this substance might be “governed by the same code of laws which governed heat, light, &c., as radiation and reflection.” Might it also be subject to the laws of optics? Thus resulted Collyer’s series of experiments with the bowls of molasses.

       On June 22 1841, Collyer repeatedly “directed his thought into [a] bowl of molasses” before an audience of “twenty four gentlemen of the three learned professions” at the Masonic Temple in Boston. Present among them, perhaps inevitably, were two delighted members of the Order of the Third Bird.

       Collyer’s unpublished autobiography makes no mention of their subsequent invitation to join them in a number of experiments opportunistically based on his attempts at psychography – and one gleans what one can from the W Cache’s vast and disorganized records and transcripts of Actions held in the US between 1804 and the present.

       It appears that, rather than stick with molasses or any other dark or highly reflective liquid, the Boston Birds directed their thoughts into various domestic objects, museum pieces, child’s drawings, classroom busts of Greek philosophers and the like.


Action Protocols were thus invented to harness the laws of mental optics as applied particularly to works of art. This probably did not sit well with Collyer. What was worse, participants in later Actions adopted complex mental and physical “positions,” using carefully placed mirrors, in order to have the angles of incidence of their respective thoughts coincide with the angle of reflection of the object’s mind. The idea was, going from the transcripts, to create a kind of prismatic consciousness, expressing itself through the utterances of each successive group member.

       None of these Protocols appear to be in use today; we would welcome any evidence to the contrary, including descriptions of relevant Actions by anonymous informants of the Order.

Report on an Experimental Practice by the Lagos Volée

One has noted a minor trend among certain volées of the Order of the Third Bird toward incorporating mirrors and other reflective surfaces in their ritual proceedings – with the expected questions in attendance: does the reflection of a work or object constitute a new or different work or object? Orthodoxy would reply in the negative, as it does to the question of whether a living being may be treated as an object of the Order’s special attentions – the subject of a future posting.

But the story of one of our correspondents presents questions of somewhat greater complexity and interest:

We have all heard arguments that the “work” – the work of art, or any object of an Action of the Order – is created by the one who looks, since the looking frames and organizes the thing. This is one element of what is called the Korffian heresy, although the Korffians have no real monopoly on it, and many respectable Birds feel the same way, especially in those volées addressing themselves to complex, multi-order reflections. These things were not my “cup of tea” however until an experience I had recently which made of me a mystic like the most enthusiastic of enthusiasts of reflections.

My wife and I have a very polished floor in our small apartment in Lagos – imitation marble tile. I found myself, in a meditative moment, looking at a sliver of light reflected in the floor, rather like a pupil gleaming under a half-lowered eyelid. It was the reflection of one of the ceiling light fixtures —but this had been switched off. Where did the light originate?


I first suspected that the fixture was reflecting the light of the sun directly – but as it turned out, it was reflecting yet another reflection: of the sun in the window of a parked car across the street. I could not determine if there was yet another intervening element involved. But in any case the half-lidded light, as it appeared deep inside the polished floor, to me gleamed as a treasure in a kind of Ali Baba’s cave. What is more each successive order of reflection appeared to multiply its depth or rather project this depth into a new, unheard-of dimension. Perhaps that half-lidded eye looked out at me from the other world, the Invisible, the place of what we call, for lack of knowledge, spirits – or something that the describable can even less approximate. This is where my fancy brought me – though of course my colleagues would not approve.

And so I called an Action the following day, praying for sun, and for the car to remain in that location, and that my colleagues and the protocol would be able to weather the odd perspectival and temporal requirements of the “object.” The Action was a success, in our opinion, partly due to the precarity of this object, which, lacking any of its exact elements, would return to the unknowable void from which it came. However I would welcome opinions from others of the Order on this matter.

We leave the reader with this request.

The Gulls

One of the most superb fictions of our last several decades has been that of the VUE – the “violent unknown event” – that swept the world and left many thousands both maimed and enhanced, speaking hitherto unknown languages, inhabiting hitherto unseen genders, suffering from strange new illnesses. The individuals who agreed to be featured in Peter Greenaway’s The Falls (1980) variously confess, after the VUE swept over them, to an obsessive desire to attempt unaided flight; to a discovered vocation for singing; to now sharing certain physical and behavioral features with certain species of birds, either to their betterment or crippling detriment. The title of Greenaway’s film refers to the first five letters in the last names of a narrow selection of those affected by the VUE and registered in the files of the committee dedicated to investigating the violent unknown event, known as the VUE Commission or Directory Commission. Other relevant institutions and entities in the film include BFI (Bird Facilities Investments), WSPB (the World Society for the Preservation of Birds, with their magazine The Rooster), and FOX (or the Society for Ornithological Extermination.)

Not surprisingly, many of the personages involved subscribe to the Theory of the Responsibility of Birds – which is to say that birds consciously and malevolently precipitated the VUE and all its effects.

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The Falls has been called a “sequel” to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds – and in fact the film itself refers to the VUE as a possible “hoax” by Hitchcock himself, who was hoping to “give credence” to the otherwise unsatisfactory ending of his film. This perhaps refers to the closing scenes in which the vivacious and mischievous Tippi Hedren, attacked in a dark upstairs room by a shrieking mob of birds, emerges not only gravely injured but nearly catatonic, metamorphosed into a different creature entirely – oddly and perhaps coincidentally recalling the effects of states of metempsychosis too long sustained by too-intrepid members of the Order of the Third Bird.

The Hitchcock film was of course based on a short story by Daphne du Maurier, of the same title. By far the most menacing creatures in that story are the gulls, wheeling in ever-widening circles over unsuspecting farmsteads, riding the swells in massive numbers, like a carpet of white foam, waiting for the signal to attack.

The appearance in The Falls not only of references to the Order of the Third Bird but of actual members of the Order is a matter of record. The individual appearing as “Sashio Fallaspy” in the film, whose real name was Sashio Hattori, was a member of a volée of the Order in Swansea, Wales from 1974. Moreover, in the film’s fictional biography she suffers after the VUE from a condition called “après-radiance.” This is an allusion, inserted by Ms. Hattori herself, to the phase known as Radiance in the so-called Protocol of the Representative as practiced by the Order.

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The story of “Coppice Fallbatteo,” in addition, is a caricature of an associate of the Order (the distinguished Concetto Passerini) with whom the creators of The Falls were somewhat acquainted. Fallbatteo, in the film, is an art historian “trying to make a novel cultural theory out of the VUE,” embarking upon a “dutiful exploration of the significance of birds in European painting.” His great obsession is Piero della Francesca’s painting known as the Brera Madonna, and the meaning of the egg that hangs so mysteriously from the scallop-shell-shaped apse.

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Finally, the Greenaway film’s most explicit reference to the Order amounts to a gesture of distancing. Those afflicted by the VUE, it is said, are able to “terminate their relationship with birds” if they manage to be buried in a certain field dominated by a bird-scarer. The saffron color of the bird-scarer in question – recalling the saffron worn by practitioners in the Order – is somewhat heavy-handed, and makes its point sufficiently.

However the true purpose of the present communiqué is to request that more research be conducted on a troubling event from the Order’s relatively recent past. It appears that not long after the release of the film – hugely popular among associates of the Order at that time, for reasons apparently unrelated to the Order’s central purpose and calling – a group led, as is so rarely the case, by the Secretary Locotenant of the Order, M. Gylhmat, attempted to conduct a standard Action upon the film, or rather upon a certain segment of it. This action took place on September 11, 1982, and the segment concerned was that devoted to the obviously fictional Stachia Fallari and her relationship with the half-brothers Pulat and Ipson Fallari whose name she came to share.Screen Shot 2015-09-26 at 6.25.11 PM

Stachia’s artwork is featured in the segment, including a sequence in which the camera zooms in closer and closer to a pen-and-ink drawing, appearing to reveal finer and finer networks of hatch lines and bird-scratches, as if in deeper strata of inter-imbricated truth and lie. At the time, a number of Protocols for “birding” films – as the birdish colloquialism would have it – were in frequent use, especially in the UK. But this was a highly risky and experimental Action – which explains the (intended perhaps as stabilizing, perhaps further perturbative) presence of the Secretary Locotenant. All participants were aware that the heightened risk of fully attending upon the film was due to the multiple and highly compressed involutions of self-referential fabrication implied by this rendezvous between the Order and the Directory Commission.

What remains to us of the event is only that none of the Birds who participated in this Action emerged quite the same; and all without exception changed their names afterward to reflect their changed lives. Moreover, while their new names varied widely, all had originally had last or first names that began with the letters G-U-L-L or could be transliterated that way. The only participant who did not change his/her name was the Secretary Locotenant. However, it seems that M. Gylhmat was the most deeply affected. Gylhmat was not spared, for example, the quadruple partition of the sexes characteristic of the VUE-afflicted in Greenaway’s fictional film – and has been, from the moment the Action ended, a middle-aged female man fluent in the VUE language Betelgeuse.

We encourage anyone in our community possessing documentation related to this event which has not yet been fully explored in its implications for the Order (aside from the Secretary, whose reticence is both unassailable and understandable) to kindly come forward.

The Third Way

An associate of the Order of the Third Bird, who wishes to remain anonymous, has reported to the Corresponding Secretary of ESTAR(SER) that he was recently approached by an individual who asked what relation, if any, the Order has, or has had, to the life and teachings of Georges Ivanovitch Gurdjieff.

It is not yet well known that several members of the Order in the early twentieth century, fleetingly attracted to the exotic gratifications of Gurdjieff’s entourage, were for a time present as observers or participants at the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man. The Institute, also known as Le Prieuré, in its crumbling castle redoubt in the Forest of Fontainebleau, France, was located near one of the summer cottages frequented by Paris-based and international Birds during their more extended experimental-communal gatherings. The cottage and grounds were jokingly called the Forêt des Trois Pigeons, after the adjacent Forêt des Trois Pignons.

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A journalist for the New Statesman (March 1923) echoes the opinion of most of the Birds who wandered into the Prieuré at one point or another, lured by talk of the exercises and experiments in heightened attention being carried out there: “The life is very simple and uncomfortable, the food is adequate but too starchy for an ordinary stomach, the work is extremely hard. The physical work, indeed, results often in a degree of exhaustion which perhaps exceeds anything that was produced even by a prolonged spell in the winter trenches of Flanders in 1917.  Many of these summering Birds being unreconstructed aesthetes with a taste rather for the finer pleasures of life, this was enough to dampen their interest in short time, along with the fact that the Gurdjieff community required a long, difficult apprenticeship, and patient attendance of lectures along with lessons in music and dance, before anything truly interesting could be imparted.

However, a certain H.R. whose correspondence we possess appears to echo another sentiment: that “Mr. Gurdjieff appears to possess full and exact knowledge of the nature, causation and practical reproduction of those rare phenomena of hyper-consciousness in which [William] James was so greatly interested.” What is extraordinary is that this well-placed Bird seems, at least temporarily, to have had as much influence on the charismatic and eccentric Gurdjieff as the other way around. In fact, the latter for a time adopted some of the characteristic terminology of the Order, though of course repurposed and repackaged; he is recorded around this period as calling the Fontainebleau community “my family – my birds” (Fritz Peters, Gurdjieff Remembered, 1965). A 1923 mimeographed German translation of one of Gurdjieff’s European lectures – the only extant edition, it is called Der Weg des dritten Vogel – concerns the “positioning” of the human faculty of attention between inner and outer, past and future, in an unattached and undirected manner. He refers to the famous metaphor from the Upanishads: “Two birds that are always together, cling to the same tree. Of these, one eats fruit of various tastes, and the other looks on without eating.”

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Gurdjieff, who at the Prieuré preached what he called the “Fourth Way,” in this lecture spoke rather of a Third, between eating and not eating, past and future, self-observation and other-observation, embodied in a Bird of the present moment, fully self-aware with regard to body, emotions, and mind. Indeed, what Gurdjieff called the “Law of Three” – a cosmic law according to which every thing, force, and phenomenon in the universe comprises Active, Passive, and “Reconciling” moments – is folded into a system of discipline and meditation intended to help the seeker attain mastery of his or her powers of attention.

Be all this as it may, Gurdjieff built his entire teaching and philosophy around the realization that existing religions and cults tend to focus on the cultivation of one element of the triad of Mind, Emotions, and Body to the detriment of the other two; his Fourth way addresses all three. Moreover, the teaching of the Fourth Way, for all its focus on attention, urges seekers to minimize their tendencies toward daydreaming, distraction, absentminded wandering, chains of association and reverie, and so forth. It was probably this that led the Gurdjieff community to definitively reject the solicitations of the always opportunistically evangelical Birds.

The joke – as our H.R. does point out – might in the end be on the Gurdjieffians, since the obviously apocryphal “Sarmoung Brotherhood” of Sufis from which the great teacher claimed he had learned so much is actually based on the really-existing and centuries-old T-rrch’un [pronounced Scharchoun] Fellowship, from the Armenian word for “bird” – based in Tbilisi, Georgia.

An Intercontinental Protocol

In the early 1950s in Paris before the 1957 foundation of the Situationist International, in a petri dish populated by old- and new-guard Lettrists, neo-Surrealists, and everything in between, a flurry of new (or simply reparceled) ideas, concepts, and practices first saw the light: dérive, détournement, psychogeography, unitary urbanism, the “surinternational mental rendezvous,” and the like.

It is from this time and context that a certain fragment from the W Cache appears to reach us. Amid many dissident-Surrealist, proto-Situationist groups, the members of the small cenacle around the Ukrainian-French Olha Espy were all recent emigrés from East and Central Europe. The document in question was almost certainly created and put into circulation by members of the Espy cenacle (whose relations with the Order of the Third Bird remain uncertain), and is without question a “protocol card” of the type still in use among associates of the Order. Dogeared and stained, it is covered with annotations in various handwritings, inks, and languages (French, Polish, Swedish, Hungarian), suggesting that it has passed through many sets of hands and was frequently reused.

An enormously valuable document, it is also unique, being one of our only evidences of a protocol intended for practitioners separated widely in space. A typical action – always in an urban setting – might for example have included practitioners located in Boston, Marseille, Frankfurt, Izmir, and so forth. It seems that participants only needed to decide in advance upon timing (phases were set to begin and end based on Paris hours), and to assure that each participant had beforehand received a sealed envelope containing instructions, to be opened during the action. The phases of the protocol could not be more standard, but their implementation could not be more idiosyncratic.

-The phase of encounter lasts from one to three hours. During this phase, a group of two practitioners (there can be no more nor less than two in each location) wanders freely in the urban space in which it finds itself. By a given hour – for example, 3 in the afternoon – the duo is to have chosen its “starting location.”

-The phase of attending begins when the duo opens an envelope containing instructions or rather, directions. From its chosen “starting location,” it is directed (for example) to take the first right, then to take the third left, then the second right; to walk straight ahead until seeing (for example) something large and yellow, and turn to face it; then to turn 75 degrees. Upon completing these instructions, the duo must consult its immediate surroundings and field of awareness in order to locate the work. The journey to the work, and the silent process by which the two practitioners agree upon the identity of the work, are considered to be fundamental parts of the work.

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-The phase of negating comprises an additional series of instructions for the completion of small and modest tasks in the vicinity of the work, often involving passersby. One might easily compare these to the creation of what would later be called “situations,” but on a smaller and more intimate scale.

-The phase of realizing appears to be entirely freeform. The practitioners understand that their realization may be private and ephemeral, or may be public and potentially scandalous, with profound repercussions. The scale of its ambition is not fixed in advance, but neither is it limited to any degree.

Colloquy, between the small groups separated across the globe, is supposed to take place by “telepathy.” We can presume that in a cultural-political milieu generally hostile to all manifestations of romantic mysticism and occult yearning, this word was not to be taken literally, but we have not been able to reconstruct its practical mechanism. Perhaps it was as simple as an exchange of reports by post.

It would be interesting to see if this particular protocol can remain viable today, outside its natural postwar Parisian environment.

The Secretary Locotenant of the Order has passed on the following document from the Secretary’s private collection: a detail from a very suggestive drawing made by group-leader Olha Espy herself.

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It is known that the human brain is strongly disposed to distinguish, to recognize and to read faces – and even to construct them out of whole cloth.


Carl Sagan famously writes:

We’re mammals, and parental care of the young is essential for the continuance of the hereditary lines. The parent smiles at the child, the child smiles back, and a bond is forged or strengthened. As soon as the infant can see, it recognizes faces, and we now know that this skill is hardwired in our brains. Those infants who a million years ago were unable to recognize a face smiled back less, were less likely to win the hearts of their parents, and less likely to prosper. These days, nearly every infant is quick to identify a human face … . As an inadvertent side effect, the pattern-recognition machinery in our brains is so efficient in extracting a face from a clutter of other detail that we sometimes see faces where there are none.


Therefore, given the strong and adaptive tendencies of our mental equipment, the faces we see in things – sudden or insidious – are not so easily to be dismissed. They are made to be seen precisely in the sense that our brains want us to see them.

We at ESTAR(SER), among our many other projects and concerns, are in the process of seeking evidence of Third Bird practices and/or protocols specifically relating to images that could be called found or potential, or more accurately, images resulting from the effects of pareidolia (in which visual patterns characteristic of living, everyday, or art objects are discerned in patternless and random visual data, or in patterned but otherwise merely ornamental visual fields).


It is no secret, of course, that during a Practice, Birds might see images in the work that its maker(s) most likely did not intend, and by this means engage in dialogue with the work. But what about works – straddling the boundary between the thing made to be aesthetically apprehended and the thing, shaped by impersonal forces (including, perhaps, the impersonal forces embodied in human beings), that owes its formal existence to a deliberate or spontaneous act of pareidolia?


How have Birds, past and present, dealt with “artworks” that impose themselves suddenly upon the senses, across the passive medium of some other work, or “artworks” that are the result of a deliberate and perverse search for such latent (or quintessentially neglected, abject, and needful) forms?

The Problem of Museums

The great French writer Paul Valéry (1871-1945) is famous for having undergone, and minutely described, a series of “crises,” each with its own special character. A crisis of “sensibility” in late youth, for example, was followed by a crisis of “intellect” in early adulthood; crises of “attention,” of “mind” (marked by the publication of Monsieur Teste in 1926) and of “spirit” followed.

It was around the time of his crisis of attention – the least documented, but perhaps the most fascinating – that he composed his essay “The Problem of Museums” (1923).

In it, he writes:

I don’t like museums much. […] I find myself in a tumult of frozen creatures, each of which demands, without obtaining it, the inexistence of all the others […] A strange organized disorder spreads out before me. I am seized by a holy dread.

zoffanyJohann Zoffany, The Tribuna of the Uffizi (1772). Wikimedia Commons.

“[…] What an effort, I tell myself, what barbarities! All this is inhuman. It is not pure. This onset of independent and inimical marvels, and the more inimical the more they resemble one another, is paradoxical […]. The ear would not bear ten orchestras playing at once. The spirit cannot follow many distinct operations, there are no simultaneous arguments. But here the eye […] as soon as it perceives, finds itself obliged to admit a portrait and a seascape, a kitchen and a triumph, characters in the most diverse poses and conditions, and not just this, it must also embrace in the same glance harmonies and ways of painting that elude comparison with one another […] productions that devour one another.”

One of the unsolved mysteries of this period in Valéry’s life concerns the nature – and indeed, even the name – of the small group he joined at the end of 1923. The identities of none of its members are known, only the pseudonyms they adopted upon joining; Valéry was called “Jean du rivage,” others adopted “Lupeux” or “Hucheur.” His Cahiers of this time contain a draft essay that mentions these names, a place of meeting (Impasse Bergonne, near the Porte Saint-Martin, Paris), and a series of experiments apparently intended to objectively determine how much attention certain objects require, and to follow through on the results.

The essay itself is a thought experiment along the same lines, one which actually assigns a numerical value to a number of well-known artworks, and applies a complicated series of calculations based on these values, on the average lifespan of a human being, and on the estimated total number of artworks in all museums worldwide, to determine exactly how many seconds of close attention these works warrant. The draft essay also lists a number of works “whose depth of meaning cannot ever be exhausted, and which only an unremitting and lifelong gaze would do justice. The ideal solution would be to appoint segments of one’s conscious mind, like phrenic stewards, to continuously contemplate these works in private mental chambers set aside for this purpose.”

As always, any further information or insight from our faithful readers is welcome.


Je Te Veille: The Masked Ball of Judex (1963)

Dear Readers, please begin not by reading, but by viewing the following:

You may have noticed, while watching, certain details:
1) The man wearing the mask of a bird of prey begins not by lending his attention to any thing or character in the film, but to us, his audience.
2) The apparently perished bird he gently lifts from the baluster exists, in this moment, only for us, and when the magician – dangerously – turns his back, hiding his movements and intentions, it is us to whom his back is turned.
3) As he begins his slow walk down the hallway – which might easily, with small adjustments, be located in a museum – and now drawing the attention of the ballgoers, certain figures keep catching the eye: matching black ravens, sly and standing apart, who promise to be accomplices or co-conspirators, but never reveal themselves as such.
4) The strange soulfulness of the inanimate gaze between two masks, duck and bird of prey, suggests that they too are accomplices, and especially the silk corsage she (of the duck mask) so conveniently wears. However, the rest of the film gives no indication that she knows, or could possibly know him.
5) The climactic moment of the mirror, with the sinister reappearance of the bird of prey, is announced by the chiming of a clock that rather oddly resembles a ringing bell.
6) The bird of prey leaves the scene silently and alone.
7) A bird is resurrected, a man dies. But he dies speaking of the “joy” of this moment.
8) The scene feels entirely self-contained – and in fact, upon viewing the entire film, nothing else in it matches its intensity and its aura of hidden meaning.

Our question: Is there, indeed, a hidden meaning here? If so, who is responsible for its insinuation into the film?

It has been hypothesized that this masked ball scene drew some of its inspiration from the oeuvre of J.J. Grandville, from which, in closing, we reproduce two lithographs:



Negation, Divination, Creation

A correspondent member of the Order of the Third Bird, Crake (Crex crex) has passed to us, via an unnamed Informant and the Secretary Locotenant of the Order, “the story of a most unusual Negation,” which we reproduce here with its accompanying images.

“In the Old City of Jerusalem there are a number of historical buildings and monuments belonging to a waqf associated with a distinguished Arab family that figures in Jerusalem history dating back to the Crusades. Some of the buildings are located in areas accessible only to Muslims, but a special invitation from the archivist of the waqf‘s distinguished manuscript collection secured for my informant the right to march right past the Israeli police, down an alleyway, and up a flight of stairs, where along with some fellow Birds he carried out an Action among the shelves of a small but bountiful library of books, as the ululations of a call to prayer from the nearby Omar Mosque echoed outside.”

The informant cannot be certain which item in the room is the object of the Action, and during the Negation has recourse, in somewhat unorthodox fashion, to “the divinatory art”:

“… the action took place in a library, one that was focused on, but not limited to, the history of the city that hosts it. Of course one of the most basic forms of divination consists in opening a book at random and seeing what the book has to say there in that spot. My informant tells me that he determined to take down two books, chosen from opposite ends of the library, and that the choice would be made simply by looking at the shelves and seeing which books ‘called him to them’. The books he ended up with by this technique were, first of all, Al-Ghazali’s 11th-century treatise, Tahāfut al-Falāsifa  (The Incoherence of the Philosophers), and, second of all, Leroy J. Pinn’s 1948 wood-carving manual, Let’s Whittle.
My informant found it fitting to look first into the book on whittling. He opened it to a page that explains how to carve a mother kangaroo with a baby in her pouch. “You will not have any trouble with this carving,” Pynn explains, “if you begin whittling around the pouch and the baby kangaroo.” The whittler is instructed to make the back legs big and strong, and the front legs, which he is not willing to call ‘arms’, small and weak.”

photo 2

“He next turned to The Incoherence, whose author had been a Persian Sufi and mystic dissatisfied with the attempts made by predecessors such as ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Al-Farabi at exhaustive knowledge of the divine by means of philosophical argumentation. Within a few decades of its publication in 1095, Al-Ghazali’s treatise would be mocked by ibn Rushd (Averroës) in what is perhaps the most cleverly titled work in the history of philosophy: The Incoherence of the Incoherence.

photo 3

“As in any mystical work, there is a certain apophatic element in Al-Ghazali’s approach, though The Incoherence is far from being a simple defense of the via negativa. On the page to which my informant opened, in the middle of Section 56, we find Al-Ghazali arguing against the Aristotelian view that the Divine has no awareness of the world. Since God is the creator of the world, and we have knowledge of God, the author argues, if God had no knowledge of us then we would be nobler than God in respect of knowledge. But this is absurd. Therefore, &c.”

This leads to further reflections. A creator, for example:

“…must necessarily know the thing created. But within this broad constraint there are many ways of knowing and creating. There is, first of all, the knowledge of the Whittler, which has served for many as the model of artistic creation in general, as when it is said that the sculptor does not make a statue, so much as he frees it from the surrounding stone in view of some idea that he has of what the statue is to look like: in view, in other words, of some object of knowledge. There is, next, the Progenitor, as for example the mama kangaroo, who holds her baby within her pouch, is responsible for its helpless marsupial being and knows it as intimately as any creature ever knew another, even to the extent that one could hardly call it another, but who never sculpted or constructed it as an artificer with a blueprint. No, instead it just came out of her.”

photo 1

“Where then do things stand with the third sort of creation, that of God in relation to the world? How does God create the world, such that he at once knows it to be his creation? Does he whittle it? Or does it just come out of him? Or is there some other mode of creation, some hypostasis or overflowing or parthenogenesis, or some other process still, unthinkable by the human mind?
And why, finally, my informant thought as the phase of Negation approached its end in the library of the waqf in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, should these exercises of Attention of ours be limited to the objects of Art: the objects, he said to me, that always come forth through some form or other of Whittling, a via negativa if there ever was one, and never any of the more exalted forms of Creation?”