Quite aside from the difficulties and mysteries encountered above (in “Sanchōden: The Transmission of the Three Birds” and “The Absence of the Third Bird at Nikkō”), we would also like to share a diverting image that arrived over the transom from a correspondent who provides only a “bird name,” as traditionally adopted by associates of the Order of the Third Bird. The caption scribbled on the reverse of this photograph, taken in apparent haste, is as follows: “Workroom and headquarters, Secretary Locotenant of the Order of the Third Bird.” Many of our readers are in proud or bemused possession of one of the many contradictory and fragmentary images of the Locotenant currently in circulation. The present photograph is unusual in that it does not purport to feature the Secretary him- or herself, and also appears to be quite contemporary.
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While we were in the process of composing the preceding entry (“Sanchōden: The Transmission of the Three Birds”) we had occasion to consult with a correspondent presently located in Nikkō, Japan. She had become interested in the recurrent bird imagery on the third ring of walls surrounding Nikkō’s Tōshōgu temple complex, which enshrines the founding father of the Tokugawa shogunate.
The decorations on this ring of walls are composed of colorful vignettes of two birds or three, of a variety of species, possibly bearing some symbolism but on the whole – in line with the rest of the Tōshōgu complex – existing to display ornate artistry and opulence, and implicitly questioning the extent to which it is possible to torque, torture and exalt matter to proclaim, reflect and supplement the glory of a given being.
Our correspondent highlights two adjacent and very curious vignettes (reproduced here as photographed by her). The first features three ducks, one of which has slipped underwater – a common enough motif that might easily evoke to Birdish sensibilities a propensity to dip below the surface of things in pursuit of some elusive aesthesis.
In the second, the two birds that were on the water’s surface are now in flight, and the third is nowhere to be seen. This third is betrayed only by the roiling of the water, and by the gap where it should be, and is not.
The pursuit of meaning here, if meaning is to be pursued, must be something like following along the length of a single filament of spider silk – invisible to the naked eye and almost impalpable, though surprisingly robust.
As the poet Kakiaji no Seiei famously observed, if only one thread in a bolt of white cloth is blue, anyone might, upon close observation, discern it – but only a poet sees that the cloth yearns to be blue.
The craftsman of these bird vignettes at Tōshōgu – if indeed he was a conscientious adept of an Order resembling that of the present day (in Japan or elsewhere) in its sensibilities and purposes – would have been certain, here, to disguise his profession of faith and fealty as a mere absence. In so doing, he made this absence an unmistakable emblem of the very thing he had so carefully omitted.
For the third bird is in fact not there. In order to pursue it and reveal its presence, one would have literally to dive below the surface of this image, or below the surface of the matter that composes this work – which of course, save for the very particular circumstances of an Action of the Order, is quite impossible.
The origins of the Order of the Third Bird as we know it today – a self-aware organization capable of transplanting itself internationally, like the manifesto-driven cultural movements of centuries past – are increasingly well-established in their late 18th-century European milieu. Aside from the fact that such facts, once established, become the bulwarks of an establishment and must be contested as such, nothing of this precludes, or has precluded, the convergent evolution of like-minded groups in other places, at other historical cusps, bearing other names and often wearing strange plumage.
Even so, it is startling when these convergent “species” of group-oriented aesthetes, having evolved to occupy a very particular niche in a society that comprises humans and works of art, evince a historical continuity or channel of influence where none could factually exist. The question of whether, given such evidence, we must revise our carefully constructed histories, or understandings of history, or simply chalk it all up to coincidence, can only be in the background in this short account, silent though not inert.
From Kitagawa Utamaro, The Bird Book (collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)
On several occasions, groups of associates of the Order of the Third Bird traveling in the Kanto region of Japan and particularly in Tokyo have occasionally come upon what appear to be volées of Birds carrying out a Protocol of sustained attention before a work of art. When questioned – for what little good this did – they did not appear to have pledged comradeship to any other group or individual, of the Order or otherwise, or even to be aware of the latter’s existence. They wore green cotton tunics or baggy green trousers instead of the saffron-colored strips or bands so frequently seen among contemporary Birds; their “practice” appeared to consist of two or more phases, separated by a loud clap in unison, as one does in a Buddhist or Shinto temple.
What is most extraordinary, and most difficult to explain, is that they refer to themselves as members of a group called “Sanchōdōkai,” which can be roughly translated as “the order of the path of [the] three birds”; they dress in green as a kind of visual pun, since the Japanese word for “green” resembles one reading of the Chinese-derived characters for “three birds.” An individual cell of the group is called a wa, after the Chinese character meaning “wing,” which is also a counter-word used for counting birds. Requirements for membership in these groups are strict, including guidelines for personal appearance and private routine, and every new member receives a suite of “secret teachings” from a group elder, complete with ceremony and song.
From Kitagawa Utamaro, The Bird Book (collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)
What has not been fully understood until very recently – in research forthcoming in the Proceedings and generously previewed with us here – are the details of what this Japanese “Order” perceives to be its genealogy. Here, some troubling matters are clarified, though others are obscured. Consider the fact, first of all, that the three most common noms de plume chosen by members (a practice similar to that of Western members of the Order) are yobukodori (literally, “calling bird”) inaōsedori (literally, “rice-bearing bird”) and momochidori (perhaps a bush warbler, though the word largely means “a multitude of birds”). These are the names of birds that appear in the Kokinshū, the great Heian-period anthology of waka poetry that set a standard for the poets of generations to come. Translators of the Kokinshū, from the earliest days to the present, have faced thorny challenges in decoding these names.
At least part of the problem for contemporary translators is the poems’ use of kakekotoba, rhetorical devices that use homophony to compress multiple layers of meaning into a single word, from which the meaning of the rest of the poem is made to suspend. For an illustration, consider these two alternative translations of a poem featuring the yobukodori, or “calling-bird”:
“Now far, now near, there / in the mountains, a songbird / warbles his tune / tentatively, will she ever / hear these love notes on the wind” (Rodd & Henkenius, 1996)
“Deep in the mountains, where I have lost my bearings / A cuckoo calls faintly.” (Shively, 1953)
Lost our bearings, indeed. For aside from the additional layers of meaning, exactly what sort of bird are we dealing with here? No one, except perhaps the original poet, has ever been sure. The identity of this bird, and of the two others, has remained a matter of debate and perplexity more or less since the poem was composed. Were they invented by the poet[s]? Were they local names for well-known species, now lost? Or perhaps, did they hide secret meanings? These three birds of the Kokinshū – yobukodori, inaōsedori, and momochidori – are so famously mysterious, in fact, that they have a collective name, Kokin no Sanchō (“the three birds of the Kokinshū”), and much ink has been spilled at their little feet. Commentators at work on other exegetical riddles, throwing up their hands, would commonly say that the mystery was “as deep as that of the three birds of the Kokinshū.”
From Kitagawa Utamaro, The Bird Book (collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)
Mysteries and esoteric meanings were part and parcel of waka poetry both as practice and as institution. Scrolls containing “secret teachings” pertaining to the composition and interpretation of poetry were passed down the generations from poet-master to poet-disciple. An aspiring poet would receive, in utmost discretion and highest ceremony, a kokin denjū, or “transmission of the secret teachings of the Kokinshū,” a section of which was specifically devoted to the “transmission of the three birds,” or Sanchōden – a revelation, varying greatly from master to master and lineage to lineage according to inclination, learning, and zeal, of the true identity and complex symbolism of the birds.
In fact, what we increasingly find, among the waka disciples and waka masters, is something of a secret society of adepts founded on an increasingly exuberant weaving and reweaving of esoteric mystery around what was originally no more than the difficult attribution of certain nouns in old texts, a tissue of willful misreading and mis-erudition, of rambling associations drawn from botany, astrology, and Chinese philosophy, of spontaneous fictions taken up and closely examined as if they were the holiest writ.
As it happens, the contemporary Japanese practitioners of the “way of three birds” – to be distinguished from the “way of the third bird,” since evidently they borrow their birds from the waka “secret teachings” tradition of the three birds and not from the Ausonian parable more familiar to our readers – have willfully derived not only the terminology and the ritual solemnity of this tradition, but the spirit of hermeneutical folly that animates it.
Portrait of the poet and poetic compiler Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241), patriarch of more than one waka-poet lineage.
But how and why, exactly, did they arrive at the point of conducting collective rituals of what is unmistakably sustained attention to works of art, from national treasures to foreign imports to casual civic works?
Our researchers are presently in possession of a scroll that most recently belonged to a member of one of the great waka families, not previously catalogued, and which firmly belongs to the tradition of delirious exegeses of “secret teachings” so disparaged by those, like the Edo-period scholar Motoori Norinaga, who later (in the words of former University of Tokyo professor Basil Hall Chamberlain) “brought the light of true philological criticism to bear on the texts in question.” Here, the three birds of the Kokinshū are made, remarkably, to correspond to three phases of a sketchily-described ritual action.
Before we draw any hasty conclusions and do as many of our colleagues delight in doing, finding here yet another protocol to add to our catalog, we must note that any individuals making practical use of this late Muromachi-period document must surely have pursued purposes palpably foreign (if congruent) to those of the Order. However – and here is where further work is urgently needed – it is also the case that many of the contemporary Japanese “three birds” groups use a ritual protocol which is quite like this one; similar enough that there must have been access to a copy of this rare text, or that its contents must have been otherwise transmitted to these practitioners. For certainly in this case at least, we cannot speak of coincidence.
The first “phase” of ritual in question, as practiced in the present day, is one of calling, and is its language recalls the Heian-period waka that first inaugurated the mystery of the three birds. One is to imagine oneself completely lost in the depths of the mountains, in an autumn twilight. One hears a high, lonely note from an unknown direction; one is called. In the second phase, also based on a single Kokinshū poem, and called a “winter” phase, one stands at one’s own gate (not lost, this time at home), listening for a sound or signal that comes from far away. The third phase – the precise details of which are closely guarded, for the time being, by those most closely involved – is called a phase of “multitude,” and is associated with the arrival of spring.
Notes on A Walk Through H
Returning readers of this blog will note that we have had previous dealings with the filmmaker Peter Greenaway, to wit, with his 1980 film The Falls (see the entry “The Gulls,” below). The numerous links between his source material for this documentary, his informants, and the Order of the Third Bird surprised none; but in their very profusion they obscured the equally fascinating case of Greenaway’s documentary film of two years prior, A Walk Through H: The Reincarnation of an Ornithologist.
Still from film: route through the city of Contorpis
A Walk Through H is a film that concerns – a film, rather, that fixedly regards – “pictures.” Aside from the initial and closing scenes – where the camera tracks along a corridor toward or away from a room containing framed works – the film never lifts its head or its eyes from the images that so deeply and sinuously preoccupy it. The images themselves greatly vary. At the beginning of the film’s journey, for the most part, they purport to show cities, buildings, and rooms; a red thread traverses these spaces, representing a route to be taken through them, and transforming them into maps.
Crucially, these are routes that have actually been taken through these spaces by the narrator of the film. It is both unstated and beside the point whether he is, in effect, mentally tracing these routes while gazing at the images; whether he carries the pictures on his person and lets them alter his inner experience of a physical landscape he is crossing; or whether indeed he literally enters the pictures in question. It is well known that practitioners of the Order of the Third Bird can have difficulty making such fine distinctions.
Still from film: route through the city of Dormis
What makes this question somewhat more difficult is the fact that it is often the very act of traversing a space, whether in thought or deed, that makes it traversable – a principle that holds even as cities lose their names, rooms lose their walls, and even the yellow (or red) brick road loses its definition.
Still from film
Treating works of art as maps – or simply as enterable things, like windows or doors, or plots of ground to be walked and explored, is not unheard of, particularly for the adepts of the Order. A large collection of documentation within the W-Cache, for example, has to do with musings on and results of such activity, the greatest portion of which is attributable to the secretive, fiercely insular volée of Birds located in the windswept old coastal town of Ipswich in northeastern Massachusetts in the mid-twentieth century. The collection mostly consists of original and reproduction images of houses with large numbers of windows, in a multitude of styles, and includes at least one of the framed works treated in A Journey Through H (see below), which the group conspired to obtain in the early 80s. The group is said to have specialized in a “protocol” of sustained attention inspired by mystical traditions dating ultimately to the first-century Talmudic academies of Asoristan (in Sasanian Mesopotamia), in which a house or palace with many rooms, wings, and floors is traversed in the mind.
Still from film (original acquired by Ipswich MA volée of the Order of the Third Bird in 1982)
It is but a short step, of course, to treating any image – not just architectural images – as houses with many rooms, and this is in fact what occurs with Greenaway’s narrator-traveler as he progresses. Many other Birds, believing that focused attention can best be described as a kind of controlled wandering, an orbit – sometimes wild and electron-like – around a given thing, instead of a discipline nakedly forced upon a single point, have used congruent or convergent techniques. The Greenaway film alludes to these currents of Bird practice via the device of having each “picture” or map, once used, gradually fade and be replaced by an odd symbol that resembles “a signpost or the skeleton of a windmill.”
Another line in the film’s voiceover alludes to an equally important ongoing debate in the Order. “Were other travelers,” asks the narrator, in Colin Cantlie’s brisk voice, “obliged to travel through the same country?” Perhaps, he continues, “it was not impossible that other travelers had different maps of this territory, simpler and more straightforward maps.”
Still from film
Works of art, of course, accommodate as many journeys as there are journeyers, even though details of these journeys often uncannily coincide. In fact, there exist theories that the work of art is a single, unchanging locus, but so richly endowed with potential configurations and trajectories of experience that it may as well be a different thing, in a different place, for every person who encounters it (this is not the same as saying that the work of art is redefined by every new encounter with it.) There are also theories, it must be mentioned, according to which all existing works of art are partial maps of the terrain of a single alternative universe, over the surface of which Birds endlessly travel, leaving their minute, whorled, flocking trails with every collective Action of sustained attention.
Still from film
It takes very little to see that Greenaway’s film hints quite heavily in the direction of the Order. This raises a question, however – a question also raised by The Falls of 1980 – of what the great filmmaker stood to gain or to say from working the Order into this document of a singular journey.
One clue lies in the fact that many of the purported “maps” for this journey are layered over or cut with images of birds in flight. In some of these images, birds fly against the background of the tangled branches of winter trees, which resemble the tangled paths of the maps; their winged bodies form abstract ciphers that often strikingly resemble the “windmills” mentioned above.
It must be stated that there are two kinds of “windmill” in A Walk Through H. There are, first of all, the windmills that replace the maps once they inevitably fade, after use (below, left); then there are the shapes that increasingly, troublingly proliferate upon the maps as the film progresses, functioning both as guides and as obstacles (below, left).
Though Greenaway in no way directly indicates that the windmills are birds (indeed, the reader might object that windmills are often quite hazardous to birds), the insinuations in this direction are forcefully underlined toward the end of the film, where a book by the great traveler and ornithologist Tulse Luper, titled Birds of the Northern Hemisphere, makes its appearance. Here the comparison, as it were, flies in the face like birds flushed from the bush.
If these windmills, of both kinds – implacable, silent, inscrutable – are indeed birds, a number of questions arise. Why, really, do the maps, once used, fade to be replaced by birds? Does this represent an intervention in debates about the nature of attention, as suggested above, or some kind of comforting affirmation, or strict prohibition, or instead something more sinister? Why do these sigils so contagiously proliferate as the film nears its ambiguous denouement? Why would images of birds be so insistently used to counterpose freedom and unfreedom, passageways and barriers, the joy of flight and the despair of those lost in a maze? Greenaway’s troubled, ambivalent relationship with the Order, at the very least, is in full evidence here.
Further mysteries linger. One of the images displayed in the film bears the figure “83/2100.” It just so happens that the W-Cache contains, in one of its ubiquitous file boxes – labeled “Telegnomy,” for reasons as yet unexamined by our researchers – a sequence of 2100 images, in varying sizes and media, bearing seemingly unrelated content. From this sequence, a single image is missing: number 83. The question of whether the formation of this W-Cache collection predates the filming of A Walk Through H would thus be of the greatest possible significance with regard both to Greenaway’s history with the Order and to the history of the Order itself.
Though perhaps here we are making a mountain out of a mere numerical coincidence – a human error among the many to which we cannot be considered immune – it is certainly no coincidence that an image of one of the “cities” in the film, called Antilipe (supposedly located in Syria), quite clearly shows an Action of the Order taking place.
Still from film: an Action of the Order of the Third Bird taking place in the “city” of Antilipe (Syria).
Note the four Birds at center and the two bird-sigils at bottom left and right.
What manner of Protocol, what esoteric lineage of practice, might this strange image reveal? Did Peter Greenaway, at some point in his life, encounter the fabled Syrian Order of Birds (now familiar to our readers from a number of recent and groundbreaking ESTAR(SER) publications) – and find himself transformed by this encounter? Was his life altered by an experience that was both as sharply defined and as nameless and fleeting as – to use the film’s words – “a path made across the grass by the shadow of flying birds”?
A note to the reader: The following report from the associate of the Order of the Third Bird known as Kingfisher has been translated from its original French. The letter of September 1870 quoted therein, first found in the W-Cache in January 2014, has been the subject of much controversy and excitement; it was accompanied by a number of other materials, including a fragment of a typewritten document apparently averring the letter’s authenticity, and signed “1713”; a scrap of paper on which a closely coiled spiral is drawn in black ink; and a length of purple silk rolled into a cylinder, containing a quantity of fine sand.
The First Seer: A Second Look at a Poet’s Sojourn in the Prison of Mazas
On August 29, 1870, Arthur Rimbaud slipped the surveillance of his mother and embarked upon a fugue that led him to Paris. The escapade was of short duration, since he was caught without a ticket at the Gare du Nord. At the dawn of the Third Republic and in the tense climate that preceded the Commune, the young man was carried off to the remand house at Mazas. The archives of the prison, which was known for having welcomed certain famous lodgers, permit us to know something further of the conditions of detention of the young poet. The statement of the facts of the case drawn up on August 31 contains little information, and one might easily believe that Arthur Rimbaud resided alone, in cell 42, until the fourth of September, the day of his liberation after the payment of bail by Georges Izambard, his French teacher.
However, in cross-referencing the documents that have been conserved, one perceives that a second young man occupied cell 42 before the arrival of the runaway, and remained there somewhat longer than the latter:
July 13, 1870, Paris, rue Daumesnil
According to the declarations of the officer of the police Jean Crétut, who was off duty, and according to the testimony of Monsieurs Isidore Lelous and Jacques Gravin and in the absence of explanation by Louis Hurtière, who had kept his silence during and after his arrest at the gate of the residence of M. Lelous, before which he had remained immobile for two entire days, it was declared that the aforementioned Louis Hurtière recognized himself to be tacitly guilty of harassment of respectable women of said house and of a premeditated attempt to steal wrought iron components of the gate of the plaintiff’s domicile, which represent entwined lions. Inasmuch as the accused did not wish to remove himself from the domicile of M. Lelous, placing in danger the wife, daughters, housemaid, and above all the reputation of the household, he was placed in preventive custody. Mtr. N°3809, L.H, 13-07-1870. Cellule n°42.
No other information is accessible concerning this mysterious supposed comrade of Rimbaud’s in the cell, save a prison doctor’s report signaling “long periods of obsessional attention to objects without interest,” which give him reason to fear “the possibility of mental crises and a gradual sliding into madness,” though he had not yet noted any worsening of the prisoner’s condition.
A second, very concise report notes that “the prisoner Louis Hurtière holds himself almost immobile, occasionally moving by a step, fixing with his gaze, without any apparent signs of discomfort, varied objects including a fork, a safety pin forgotten on the corridor floor, or even a bird etched in simple curves on the wall of the cell by a previous prisoner.”
Who was Louis Hurtière? What did his curious attentional behaviors conceal? Did he have any communication with Arthur Rimbaud? What is certain is that the contemplative attitude of this inmate was enough to prompt new and careful research in the W-Cache, which contains the archives of the Order of the Third Bird; the practices of its members can be linked to what we know of the behavior of this individual locked up for having let his attention be arrested by a confection of wrought iron.
During these researches, a letter drew quite a bit of attention on the part of the W-Cache archivists. This anonymous letter was addressed to M. Georges Izambard, Arthur Rimbaud’s French teacher, and despite a lack of signature might easily be a personal letter from his student. The handwriting does not resemble that of the young boy; it is not comparable to the elegant penmanship of his first so-called “lettre du voyant.” But perhaps Rimbaud dictated this letter to a fellow student? And what if what we have here is actually the first “visionary letter,” before the well-known one written some months after its author’s release?
Paris, September 3, 1870
Haven’t you ever felt the need to perseverantly observe a worldly object, to the point that its lineaments seem to you renewed and remade? Have you never felt a kind of mystic obsession for what remains hidden to the eye of the ordinary? No, surely not. Your habits oblige and blind you. Do you not agree? You know my present circumstance. It causes me no suffering. It has allowed me to visit a hidden cleft in the world, a darkling fold, where I met the only true poet I have seen in this world. I did not meet him astroll in the full light of day; it is in the darkness of a cell that I find him, one from which we have already escaped. In thought, Monsieur! Thought, which you deem so powerful, but which in you is a bird that, having hurled itself endlessly at the pitiless bars of its cage, has finally ceased to struggle, and awaits its end, its wings immobile upon the straw. Your modest magician’s talents cannot produce the dark radiance of the spells I learned that day. Yes, I tell you, I have been initiated into forms of magic whose perfumes have enchanted me for ever. May you one day know such mighty effluvia as these. If you hope ever to meet a poet of the shadows, I pray you to show the same indulgence as you once did for my person and my knaveries. You have supported me; you know my defiances and follies; double, I pray you, the grace that you have shown me, and let its blind hand guide my new friend to freedom. If I do not reveal to you the ritual hours given to bring our souls to an alchemical boil, I can deliver to you the vivid result. Imagine before your eyes a safety pin – so simple, this bit of twisted iron that discreetly reflects the little light that reaches us here – then let your mind little by little unfold itself, this fine linen which I will not thus have failed to dishevel.
Flower-moire, crocodile-phosphor, subterranean-blue, eye-saw, void-tatooed, brick-cell, scarab-constellation, tooth-mirror, bosphorus-needle, skeleton-ball, crab-gloaming, Atlas-cinders, Vein-goddess, flute-ear, langour-skein, grass-silk, territory-spindle, note-alembic, caterpillar-sluice, circle-sword, iris-architect, boat-thread, comet-loop, plait-ant, mosquito-lace, victory-mien, ruin-tortoise, landscape-atom, mask-cage, horn-firefly, lantern-hollow, prism-rust, lighthouse-bird, song-pricked, chain-orange, nail-waterlilly, aileron-island, wrinkle-hatched
Numerous clues in this letter leave us to imagine that this Louis Hurtière, still unknown to us, was most likely a Bird of the Order; and it seems that his encounter with Rimbaud was exceedingly inspirational for this “thief of fire.” Knowing his amazing precociousness, it is not impossible that a part of his genius was born of an initiation into the attentional practices of the Birds, and then channeled into the creation of the poem at the end of his letter. Though some doubts remain with respect to the authenticity of the document, it is a matter only of further pursuing research toward a better understanding of the links forged between Arthur Rimbaud and Louis Hurtière.
We have recently received word that an associate of the Order of the Third Bird, known as Martin-Pêcheur or Kingfisher, has completed a journey along the medieval pilgrimage route known as the Camino de Santiago or the Route of Santiago de Compostela (or in French, Saint Jacques de Compostelle) – the route of the “field of stars.” What is most extraordinary is that on his way, he was able to find and join gatherings of other Birds, and participate in Actions of sustained attention to the precious objects and works scattered along the route as in a starry sky; and not only this, but was able to uncover the long-lost story of a goldsmith Bird, reaching out into the past, in an act of historian’s attention, to unify a scattering of facts into a new constellation. For some time the details of the creation of the goldsmithed reliquaries and treasures of Sainte Foy, in the village of Conques on the Compostela route, had been obscure – and as it so often happens, we can see that this story is caught up in the tangled history of the Order, whose traces our correspondent seeks. Here are his words, modestly translated by one of our editors.
Chronicle of a Bird-Pilgrim
Birds of the Order know ways of making themselves receptive to legends that are told about others of their kind. Among the histories relayed by oral traditions, it often happens that the members of this very discreet Order bestow something of themselves to posterity through the play of symbols, and that their presence and their labors reach us, across time, to be grasped only by those who have ears to hear. Having on numerous occasions heard the joys of the pilgrimage road of Saint Jacques de Compostelle evoked, I could not help but recall certain of the little details that persisted across these testimonies.
Several of the legends relate certain odd behaviors assumed by Birds, for example the following:
Until the last century, there rose in the middle of the bridge [at Le Puy-en-Velay] the statue of Notre Dame du Puy, standing witness to the links of the Compostelle pilgrimage to the great Marian sanctuary of Puy in Velay. Now, according to the legend, a little bird would fly up the river, wetting its wings in flight, in order to bathe the visage of the Virgin, and all living there saw in this a sign of abundance and prosperity. Alas! Victim of the indignities of the years, the statue, very damaged, was transported in 1846 to the San Pedro church, where it is known by the name of the Virgin of the “Chori” (bird) or “Txori” in Basque. But since that year, the little bird has never appeared again.” (Translated from Patrick Huchet and Yvon Boelle, Sur les Chemins de Compostelle, Editions Ouest France (2014)).
It did not take much more than that for me to undertake to prepare for a Compostelle pilgrimage, for it did not appear to me impossible that the Birds, from near or far, had traveled these routes and Practiced on the way. Although from the beginning I encountered signs of the possible presence of Birds – numerous sculptures representing birds, and this from the moment of departing Puy en Velay – I will not tell the story, however agreeable it might be, of my first ten days of walking those fields and forests whose beauty little by little soothes those who tread and traverse them. I will begin, rather, with the story of my arrival in the celebrated town of Conques, an important stopping place for the pilgrims of yesterday and of today.
The beauty of Conques is unanimously praised. The town was evoked already by the poet Ermold le Noir in a poem whose content gave me great hope as to the new signs that I hoped to find:
Formerly this place, harsh and rugged as it was,
harbored only the savage beasts and the birds,
who filled the valley with their melodious songs.
Translated by Hannah Green in Little Saint (Modern Library, 2001).
One arrives at Conques as if falling upon a nest, and especially for those on foot, the town only begins to appear as one descends into the hollow of the valley between two abrupt slopes. The hidden village takes its name from the shape of this hollow in which it was built,resembling a Saint-Jacques shell (or king scallop), which always reminds me of spread plumage, its feathers composing a gracious fan.
The grand abbatial church of Conques carries itself like a treasure in a jewelcase, and one can walk all around it upon the village’s various elevations, while remaining very close to it. In this way one has the impression of flying freely around its imposing architecture. The place is ideal for states of contemplation, and seeing it I better understood – and later, better still – the painter Pierre Soulages who created the stained glass windows of the abbatial church and who writes: “Conques is where I experienced my first artistic emotions.” After wandering the village in search of signs and evidence, and interrogating several of the monks who welcomed me to the Abbey, I was advised in mysterious tones to cast my eyes upon the treasure in the abbatial church, which I did.
“Rare and remarkable,” “splendid and marvelous,” “astonishing, fascinating, mysterious, even enigmatic,” not to mention “unique.” Over time, descriptions of this treasure have become an admiring litany. The relics of Sainte Foy are contained in goldsmithed pieces of a rare finesse, and upon which one beholds, in their enchanting beauty — birds. After some drawn-out moments of observation, I asked the guide if the artisan of such beautiful pieces was known. He responded then that the donor of the relics was known, and their sponsor, but not the one who had forged them such beautiful enclosures. The Book of Sainte Foy itself has had several of its pages torn out, those concerning the realization of the works conserved at Conques. The only mention of the artisan is found in another chapter of the work and must have been forgotten by those who wanted to rub out its traces: the name of “Noddy, the blacksmith of the field of stars,” concealed among its lines. I could not but be arrested by the name of this mysterious blacksmith, since he bore the name of a bird. Convinced that this was here proof sufficiently solid to carry my researches further, I contacted a Bird of the Order for assistance in exploring to this purpose the documents contained in the prolific W-Cache, well known to students of the Order.
While I was waiting for the results of inquiries, my travels continued. But it only took a few days – during which I came upon no more signs, but began to understand the bewitching perfection the art of this blacksmith had attained – for someone to contact me.
Some pages of a manuscript strongly resembling the manuscripts I had consulted at Conques were, in sooth, found in the W-Cache. Unfortunately, they were almost illegible – although below is a reproduction of the parts of the text we were able to read at the cost of a long labor of decipherment of Latin graphs and medieval abbreviations. After several months of research, a true encounter became possible with the mysterious blacksmith of the field of stars whose discretion when it comes to the things of this world is equal to the excellence of his artisanship.
Master Noddi was not only one of the greatest artists of our time, but his heart had been refined in the fires of long years walking the paths toward the holy city of Santiago de Compostela. This artisan accepted – though not without hesitation, given his habitual humility – to realize the pieces asked of him. In exchange he made several astonishing requests, which nonetheless were not of the sort to trouble the unfolding of his work; they were granted him.
The first piece is finished. The Sainte Foy in Majesty is a marvel of goldsmithing. The statuette measures 85 centimeters in height. It is made of yew wood covered with gold, gilded silver, and enamel, and set with gems that enchase the skull of this Carolingian majesté. I cannot find the words to describe the unbelievable beauty of this work.
As previously agreed, a group of unknown men and women were seen to gather around the reliquary after its creation. Numerous guards were of course present to assure themselves of the intentions of these visitors, who remained a long while fixedly and silently observing the reliquary. I do not believe I recognized the prayers they enacted, but I do trust the artisan with regard to the significance of such a gathering. The group then left the grounds and drew away near a great oak tree which offered them shade during a conversation the context of which was never communicated to me.
The collection is completed, with neither delay nor any disappointment as to the exceptional quality of its working. It is composed of a hexagonal reliquary; a pentagonal reliquary; the famous “A of Charlemagne”; a chasse, a Crucifixion plaque, a lantern in the form of an antique tomb, an enthroned Madonna and Child, a Pope Paschal reliquary, a reliquary tryptich and a reliquary arm of Saint Georges. Before Noddi once again took up his journey and his guests dispersed, I was invited to strange ceremony which, I imagine, is a rite transmitted from artisan to artisan. Since our man has mastered his art to perfection, I decided to pay my respects at this occasion which could not, I believe, do any harm to the diligent conservation of the Holy Relics.
We observed four silent phases of which I cannot be sure of the length, and which I describe below. The first phase consisted of considering, before all, the space that welcomed to the receptacles created for the different relics, and illuminating in one’s thought the fires of the forge, preparing to submit to it all their materials. The second phases required an attentive observation of the work, a total and unconditional acceptance of it. A third phase was consecrated to a kind of decomposition of the work, into the various forms of matter that composed it, rendering to nature, which had produced them, the minerals and precious stones used for its creation. Finally, the fourth phase demanded a consideration of the work as if each of its forms, its colors and its materials possessed the force and beauty of a celestial work, and thus to cultivate in oneself the greatest astonishment and the grandest admiration for it.
I must say that despite my initial reticence, the experience was of great interest, even if I do not believe I have gauged its fullest amplitude, lost as I was amid my thoughts, which assailed me without cease while the other participants seemed so profoundly absorbed in the activity of contemplation. However I sensed being born in me a curious relationship, dense and vibrant, with this piece of goldsmithwork. Several times I thought I saw the door come half ajar which might lead to a full understanding of these objects, as if I were about to enter for the first time into the heart of things. But these fugitive sentiments were extinguished as quickly as they appeared.
—Amaury de Rugis, Scribe of the Abbatial Church of Conques
It is not impossible that it was the witness of this Practice himself who sought to withdraw these passages from the final manuscript of the Book of Sainte Foy, so as not to risk being accused of paganism. It might also easily be that a migratory Bird deliberately safeguarded, in this way, the discretion of the Order. In this way it is now added to the practices and protocols now conserved in the archives and will, I hope, utilized by its contemporary inheritors. In the meantime, research on the goldsmith of the field of stars can only continue and be documented by other students (or members) of the Order who undertake this pilgrimage and who find on their route other signs and wonders leading to a better understanding of this remote forebear of the Order.
The Protocol of the Forge: Kingfisher’s Reconstruction
Rekindle the forge.
Sense the elements and the materials around and in the work and envisage their response to the fire of the forge.
Awaken the work.
Observe the spark of life that the work has been given, its open presence to the world, its existence, its breath.
Decompose the object into its different constituents and imagine that each returns, in its original form, into the mines, the rivers, the forests or the quarries from which it came.
The matter of stars.
Imagine that the work is made of a precious metal, a fragment of a meteorite or of a star with extraordinary properties; embrace its strange, alien, and magnetic power.
An associate of ESTAR(SER) who is a bookseller in Ohio (and who wishes to remain anonymous, but who tells us he was connected, until two years ago, with the midwestern Ausonian Fellowship) writes with a find:
Dear Sir or Madam,
Into my possession came lately a copy of an uncommon volume: Echoes of the Aesthetic Society of Jersey City (New York: Thompson and Moreau, 1882). I include a snapshot of the cover here:
I had heard of the body, and had come to suspect that the patroness of this salon-association, Mrs. Erminnie A. Smith, was in fact a devotee of the Order, having come under the influence of Susan Elizabeth Blow, who will be familiar to your readers. I therefore perused the volume closely, with an eye toward uncovering any Birdish “Easter Eggs” it might secrete. I have persuaded myself that I have been successful, and wish to test my hypothesis by means of this informal correspondence with your “Notes and Queries” — in the hope that, should my argument withstand scrutiny, I might elaborate it into a contribution to the Proceedings.
Initially, I must confess, I was disheartened to discover, in these yellowed pages of high-quality paper, a quite conventional assortment of poetic appreciations and Victorian-sentimental chapbook squibs. I caught no glimpse of any substantive texts that might be read as allegories of the Practice or as veiled allusions to its rites and forms.
But my persistence was, I believe, ultimately rewarded. It was on examining the frontispiece…
…with a high-powered loupe that I discovered two highly suggestive vignettes, which I believe confirm our longstanding suspicions about Mrs. Smith and her aesthetical acolytes of Jersey City.
First, then, take a closer look at the left hand margin of the (inert) inset of the poetaster’s labors:
A close look reveals a rather mysterious aggregation of figures:
Could it be doubted that this is a “formation” of the Birds — indeed, something very close to the traditional “Phalanx”? I think your readers will, on spending some time with the image, come to agree that it must be this and nothing else. Though questions do remain. First, the screens that the figures are holding before their faces strongly suggested the “reduction screens” heretofore thought to have their origin in the work of Inyard Kip Ketchem. But if I am not mistaken, this image (from 1880) predates the existing terminus a quo for the “Ketchem Screen.” In light of this discovery, more work is clearly needed on the history of the use of this optical prosthetic in Bird exercises. Second, it is difficult to deny that the group looks very much as if they are “attending” on the top-hatted figure to the left. He does not appear to be a statue, much less a painting. Rather, he seems quite wholly to be a human person. To the best of my knowledge, the only Protocol that positions Birds in attendance on a human being is the so-called “Prosphorion,” on which much ink has been spilled in ESTAR(SER) circles of late (I allude to your recent three-part series on the “renaissance” of this Practice). Needless to say, if the image above can be taken to represent a Prophorion, the entire extant history of this Practice will need to be re-written — since to date it is associated closely with the work of Erich Auerbach, Istanbul in the 1930s, and the now well-known “Boğaziçi Rolls.” More work is evidently in order.
Nor, I think, does all of this exhaust the document in question, as far as the history of the Order is concerned! Since a closer look at the lower right hand corner of the same page…
…reveals another highly-suggestive scene:
Modern devotees of the Practice will here descry a nearly shockingly blatant depiction of the commencement of an “Action” (the easel/print-stand to the right looks ready to receive the “object” in the hands of the bearded gentleman-caller; the well-appointed table in the lower right has clearly been arranged for “colloquy”). It would seem that Mr. B. B. Chamberlin — a well-known draftsman-naturalist and collector of minerals in the Hudson Valley — chose to be surprisingly explicit in his celebration of Mrs. Erminnie Smith’s gracious hosting of her volée!
Thank you for your attention,
We are ourselves, I think, largely convinced here — but critical responses are welcome, and may be addressed to the corresponding secretary: corrsecretaryEST@gmail.com.
The Secretary Locotenant of the Order of the Third Bird has recently asked if we at Communiqués would have any interest in publishing a selection of the Locotenant’s vast correspondence with various members and practitioners of the Order. The enthusiasm of our response cannot be overstated; the following will be the first in a punctuated series reproducing choice fragments of this archive.
The first letter in the correspondence reproduced below (spanning 9 months) was originally addressed by a member of the Order to the community of Birds at large, and the Locotenant appears to have stepped in on behalf of the Order. These documents reach us “as is,” with little comment or explanation (some of the redactions and paraphrases are the Locotenant’s, some are our own), but they do also speak clearly for themselves, and include tantalizing allusions to the Order’s internal affairs, including the choosing of “Bird names.”
Several things should nonetheless be mentioned: the July 15 letter makes reference to a lecture that ESTAR(SER) itself delivered on the “traveling attention artist” Inyard Kip Ketchem (1847-1919) and his famous “reduction screen.” It also refers, quite puzzlingly, to the Order’s “founding myths,” and even more so, to “invented progenitors.” Most likely, this is a subtle jab at some misunderstanding perpetrated by ESTAR(SER) itself, its inevitable ignorance with respect to the arcane doings of the Order, or the incompleteness of its historical knowledge. May we only comment that, if our knowledge of the Order were not incomplete, we would hardly have reason to continue our loving pursuit of its mysteries?
An ESTAR(SER) researcher based in New York recently submitted the following query, which follows up on the recent series about the “renaissance” of the Prosphorion in the United States:
“Perusing a recent collection by the poet Rachel Hadas, I came across ‘Attention,’ originally published in Per Contra in the Spring of 2007 (I enclose a copy). Even a superficial reading places firmly in evidence Hadas’s debt to the Practice of the Birds, and the poem would seem to be an affecting evocation of a specific (outdoor) Action in Midtown Manhattan. I thought the work captured something of my own experience working with a group with Villareal’s work entitled Volume at 1133 Sixth Avenue (the Durst building) many years ago — the notion that “attention is…communicable, spreads through crowds” beautifully specifies something many of us have, I think, discovered in a very visceral way in the course of Actions (particularly those outdoors, in public spaces, where the “punctum” of a volée can draw a crowd merely on the strength of the vectoring attention of the phalanx). All that seems relatively transparent in the poem. Less obvious, perhaps (and the reason for my sending along this note), is the gesture, in the final stanza, toward the ‘reciprocity of the gaze’ (here indexed by the Hopkins quote) — which I read as strongly suggesting the dynamic of Veillance (the remarkable final phase of the Prosphorion). Those familiar with this Protocol will recall the phrasing: ‘There is no such thing as absence. See: The Absent Thing attends to you.’ For those who have attended on a Representative for thirty minutes or an hour, there is indeed something uncanny in that sense which can emerge, in the final phase, that the object is indeed ‘staring back.’ If indeed Hadas’s Attention references not merely an ordinary Action, but a Prosphorion, it would be, I think, the earliest instance of a Prosphorion of which I am aware in the New York City area. (Though I have heard of earlier instances on the West Coast of the United States). Insights from those with further knowledge on these matters would be very welcome.”
This is the third in our series of posts on a number of recent Actions of the Prosphorion called by the Order of the Third Bird. The following is a response to the previous post, from a Bird calling her- or himself “Whistling Duck,” who appears to have participated in the Action devoted to Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc.” This brings the number of Birds known to have been involved in this historic event to two – further revelations are perhaps to come.
Extraordinarily, it is a letter addressed to the Tilted Arc itself. But what will also be of greatest interest to our wider research community is that this latest document represents a first-hand account of how the Birds themselves might see our devoted labors and our tireless efforts to follow the thread of the Order’s history through the great tangled skeins of the ages. We would also do well to consider the profound implications of the questions it raises.
Dear Tilted Arc,
Reading the description of your experience, I am overwhelmed by the conjuring potential of the Prosphorion. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, alerting us to dimensions of our practice that were heretofore unknown.
You speak of a symmetrical power of which we are unaware, and you are right, I (at least) was certainly not attuned to this specific aspect of our communion on February 5th. And yet, I feel like I can confess to you a needling suspicion I have had since that day. As an amphibious bird and agnostic person, I am not accustomed to such beliefs, and yet, you were there. So here it is: Do you think it is possible that there were others?
Let me explain: In preparation for the practice, I had been thinking about my relationship as a Bird with our great historiographers and sometimes kinsmen, the editorial committee of ESTAR(SER). I feel deeply indebted to them for their research efforts, their sensitive and passionate intellectual pursuit, their poetic tributes. It is because of them that the Prosphorion has been rescued from obscurity.
But it seems that this resuscitation is also fraught. What does it mean for the Birds to appropriate research as practice? In a more emotional vein, how do we contend with our heritage? Our ancestors, if you will.
The Prosphorion brings these questions to the forefront of my mind, for in addition to the Practice, it has also revealed a mysterious genealogy of forebears in practical aesthesis. For instance, in correspondence with the Secretary Locotenant [of the Order of the Third Bird], I learned of the highly secretive Czernowitz volée of the 1930s. This volée is “remembered almost solely for an unusual ‘choreographical’ variation on the Practice, carried out for the most part in that city’s public squares; several of its members being Jewish, such gatherings were increasingly dangerous in that difficult time.” As ESTAR(SER) answers the call for more research, I realize that there is an equally important duty when we re-enact these esoteric, quasi-mystical actions. We become, in effect, torch-bearers, carrying on a tradition of which we know only fragments. Like all people who turn to history to make sense of themselves, our present-tense actions become infused with an imaginary intimacy, an inevitable longing.
Which, in our case, mirrors the action of the Prosphorion itself. We meditate on the absence of an object, and in some way we contend with that reality, and perhaps briefly undo it.
But what if a side-effect of this conjuring is not only to bring back an object, but also, to bring back those Birds who are no longer with us? Is it possible that those who practice the Prosphorion unwittingly undergo another symmetry, becoming Bird-Representatives? Does the Prosphorion have, tucked away within it, the longing not only for the object, but the lost Bird? In practice, do we all embark on an act of radiance, and thereby carry within each practice countless more?
Further practice, it seems, is necessary.
But tell me, Tilted Arc. How many of us did you see?
With great admiration,