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Generative AI and The Order of the Third Bird

A surprising AI-generated image (Dall-E), in reply to a prompt asking for an image of “Birds”


An associate of ESTAR(SER) who stays abreast of recent developments in “cyberspace” has recently written to Communiqués with an interesting report.  We append it here below:


Many of the readers of ESTAR(SER)’s Proceedings, and the more regular “Notes and Comments” circulars will be familiar with the proliferation of new digital tools that facilitate archival research. Much of the scholarship on the “Order of the Third Bird” over the last two decades has made exciting new use of bibliographical finding aids and full-text searchable databases of rare published materials, and this has enabled discoveries and insights not previously available to earlier generations of researchers.  But nothing in any of that work has prepared us for the ground-breaking power of the new “Artificial Intelligence” systems that have become widely available in the last two years.  The generative AI architecture that underlies ChatGPT is capable of synthesizing resources, analyzing problems, and even making independent (and novel!) observations across the widest conceivable range of human endeavor.  The implications for historical research (in general), and ongoing study of the Birds (specifically) could not be greater.  Though it is difficult, at this early stage of so radical a new technology, to foresee exactly where all this will lead.

In order to make a preliminary demonstration of the utility of these instruments, my colleagues and I, making use of ChatGPT-4, conducted a preliminary AI “parley” concerning the Order.  We were struck by the results, and convey them here: 

ESTAR(SER) researchers:  What are you able to tell me about the group known as “the Order of the Third Bird?”

ChatGPT – 4:  The Order of the Third Bird is a somewhat enigmatic group with a focus on attentive practices, particularly regarding the contemplation of art and objects. Here are some key aspects of this group:

  • 1. Mystique and Secrecy: The Order of the Third Bird has a certain aura of mystery surrounding it. The details about its origins, membership, and specific practices often seem intentionally obscured, contributing to its enigmatic reputation.
  • 2. Art and Contemplation: Central to the group’s activities is the act of intense and prolonged contemplation of artworks or objects. This practice is often described as a ritualistic or meditative engagement with art, going beyond mere observation to a deeper, more immersive experience.
  • 3. Historical References: While the true history of the Order is difficult to trace, various historical references and documents suggest that it has been in existence for centuries. These references often imply a longstanding tradition of intellectual and artistic engagement among its members.
  • 4. Influence on Art and Thought: The Order has reportedly influenced various artists, writers, and thinkers throughout history. Its emphasis on deep contemplation and the experiential aspect of art has been said to contribute to broader discussions in aesthetics and the philosophy of perception.
  • 5. Modern Interpretations: In recent times, the Order has been the subject of various artistic and scholarly interpretations. Some see it as a real entity with a significant historical presence, while others view it as a fictional or metaphorical construct used to explore ideas about art and observation.
  • 6. Cultural and Literary Appearances: The Order of the Third Bird occasionally appears in cultural and literary works, often used as a device to explore themes of observation, the nature of art, and the boundaries between reality and fiction.

Given the elusive nature of the Order, it’s challenging to distinguish between historical fact and creative interpretation. Much of what is known about the Order comes from artistic and literary sources, which may blend truth, myth, and artistic license.

We were impressed by this overview, which strikes us as less confused than we often encounter when raising the topic — even with relatively well-informed persons.  It will be worth considering other ways this new tool can facilitate our research and point the way to new perspectives on Birdish historiography.

Follow-up suggestions, or parallel reports are welcome:

Henry James and “Sustained” Attention

A correspondent from Paris wrote recently:

“I was struck, on page 184 of my edition of The Portrait of a Lady, by James’s use of scare-quotes around “sustained” as it modifies “attention” (see attached).

It is almost as if there were some fixed phrase with which he was familiar and to which he wishes to allude…”

While much ink has been spilled on William James’s relationship to the Order of the Third Bird (see, for instance, The William James Working Group, “ ‘Fix Your Eyes Right Here !’ The Life and Times of Inyard Kip Ketchem, the Performing Attention Doctor,” Proceedings of ESTAR(SER) New Series IV, Vol. 2 [2012] : 63–91; recently reprinted in Burnett, Hansen, and Smith, In Search of the Third Bird), much less is known about the other James brother’s entanglements with avian matters. The topic invites further work, and additional references or documents are solicited.


“Doing the Bird” – Further Questions

Many readers of these Communiquées will remember the late, great ESTAR(SER) scholar Gregg C. Toomey (1958-2018), whose unparalleled review essay, “ESTAR(SER) and the W- Cache: The State of the Discussion” (originally published in the Proceedings, New Series v, Vol. 3 [2013]: 1–16), was recently reprinted, as Chapter 3, in the “Best of the Proceedings” volume, In Search of the Third Bird (London: Strange Attractor, 2021). Toomey was, of course, something of a “character,” and, even by his own account, a persistent thorn in the side of the administration at Ball State. He had a reputation as a practical joker, but at times it could be difficult to tell if he was joking.  An unfinished short manuscript by Toomey, recently come to light, has left a number of us uncertain as to his intentions in this regard.  We offer a précis of the problem here, in case anyone has any ideas.

The term “bird” is surely “polysemous,” in that we have no shortage of meanings (hugely diverse!) that have been associated with the word.  Used as a verb and a noun, and deployed in a host of settings (including many slangs), the term can sometimes seem too slippery for reliable communication.  Toomey, of course, taught in the Communications department at Ball State, and had a longstanding interest in American popular argots. A folder of notes found in his Nachlass reveals that he collected a host of sources bearing on the stemma of the expression “The Bird is the Word” – a jingle best remembered in connection with the 1963 hit by the landlocked midwestern “surfing” band, the Trashmen, “Surfin’ Bird,” in which, amidst a bass-line warble of indecipherable phonemes, the agitated lead vocalist continuously chants “The Bird, the Bird, the Bird is the Word.” The lyrics can be reconstructed as follows:

A-well-a everybody’s heard about the bird
B-b-b-bird, b-birdd’s the word
A-well, a bird, bird, bird, bird is the word
A-well, a bird, bird, bird, well-a bird is the word
A-well, a bird, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well, a bird, bird, bird, well-a bird is the word
A-well, a bird, bird, b-bird is the word
A-well, a bird, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well, a bird, bird, bird, well-a bird is the word
A-well, a bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well-a don’t you know about the bird?
Well, everybody knows that the bird is the word
A-well-a-bird, bird, b-bird’s the word, a-well-a
A-well-a everybody’s heard about the bird
Bird, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well, a bird, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well, a bird, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well, a bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well, a bird, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well, a bird, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well, a bird, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well, a bird, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well-a don’t you know about the bird?
Well, everybody’s talking about the bird!
A-well-a bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well-a bird, surfing bird, brr, brr, ah, ah
Ah, bap-a-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pap
Ma-ma-mow, pa-pa, ma-ma-mow, pa-pa
Ma-ma-mow, pa-pa, ma-ma-mow, pa-pa
Ma-ma-mow, pa-pa, ma-ma-mow, pa-pa
Ma-ma-mow, pa-pa, ma-ma-mow, pa-pa
Ma-ma-mow, pa-pa, ma-ma-mow, pa-pa
Ma-ma-mow, pa-pa, ma-ma-mow, pa-pa
Ma-ma-ma-ma-mow, pa-pa, ma-ma-mow, pa-pa
Ma-ma-ma-ma-mow, pa-pa, ma-ma-mow, pa-pa
Ma-ma-mow, pa-pa, ma-ma-mow, pa-pa
Ma-ma-mow, pa-pa, ma-ma-mow, pa-pa
Ma-ma-mow, ma-ma-mow, pa-pa
Ma-ma-mow, ma-ma-mow, pa-pa
Ma-ma-ma-ma, ma-ma-mow
Ma-ma-ma-ma, ma-ma-mow
Ma-ma-mow, pa-pa, ma-ma-mow, pa-pa
Ma-ma-mow, pa-pa, ma-ma-mow
A-well-a don’t you know about the bird?
Well, everybody knows that the bird is the word
A-well, a bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well-a mow, mow, pa-pa, ma-ma-mow, pa-pa
Ma-ma-mow, ma-ma, mow, pa-pa

Did Toomey actually believe that this song spoke to the history of the Order of the Third Bird?  It seems unlikely.  There are many reasons to doubt the connection.  Minneapolis native Steve Wahrer, the drummer and lead vocalist for the Trashmen (who conjured the hit), is not otherwise known to have associated with the Avis Tertia, or to have shown any particular interest in durational exercises of immersive attention of a “Birdish” character.  Toomey may have collected the related sources, then, as part of a gag, or in connection with a piece of nonce-scholarship with which he may have intended to amuse a few colleagues.

But there is evidence that Toomey may have gotten increasingly seduced by the intricacies of the story he gradually uncovered.  After all, Wahrer and the Trashmen ultimately had to cede credit for “Surfin’ Bird,” after legal proceedings revealed what many insider-aficionados already knew:  the song was a satura (at best) or, less charitably, a total rip-off, in that the lyrics and the tune had been cobbled together, without acknowledgement, from the work of the African-American R&B band The Rivingtons, whose “The Bird’s the Word” had established the gnomic refrain, and whose “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow” set the canonical bass-line.  Both releases predated “Surfin’ Bird” (the latter in 1962; the former in 1963, but in advance of the Trashmen’s vinyl).  A settlement was reached.  The Rivingtons themselves followed up on the success of “Surfin’ Bird” (which reached #4 on the Billboard top 40) by producing a new song, “Mama-Oom-Mow-Mow” which (like the work of their plagiarists) integrated the bass-line of “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow” with the lyrical elements of “The Bird’s the Word.” Released on a new LP entitled “Doin’ the Bird,” the song failed to chart.

The “Bird” in this context was, of course, a dance, the moves of which are demonstrated here, on the back of a subsequent Rivington’s album:

There is a good deal of material in Toomey’s final writings suggesting that he came to suspect that there was, in fact, a genealogical link tying the somatics and kinetics of the “Bird” to “Birdish” practices of ludic aesthesis.  But did he, really?  Anyone having further archival information or other insights on this matter is invited to pass correspondence to the Secretary.

A Report from the Trans-American Expedition

The Frye Trunk (closed)

Readers of the Communiqués will likely have heard some discussion, over the last two years, concerning the discovery and acquisition of the unusual valise that has come to be known as “The Frye Trunk.” This large leather-trimmed portable storage unit came to the attention of ESTAR(SER) researchers in connection with investigations into the history of radical practices of attention in the Pacific Northwest, a program of inquiry occasioned by a commission from the Frye Art Museum, in Seattle (which contacted us in 2019 about the possibility of mounting an exhibition on this topic).  A preliminary report on the trunk, and its remarkable contents, is now available in the form of a new Proceedings monograph, The Working Group on Exhibitions, “The Frye Trunk: Opening a ‘Pandora’s Box’ in the Archives of Attention,” Proceedings of ESTAR(SER) New Series VIII, Supplement (2022). There is broad consensus that this portmanteau ATTENTIONAL ECOSYSTEM represents a key artifact attesting to nearly a century of “Birdish” activities in Seattle and its environs.  The object is at the center of a new exhibition at the Frye Museum, THE THIRD, MEANING, and interested persons are encouraged to make an effort to see this useful installation, which is complete with explanatory text, etc.  Special thanks to the Frye Trunk Conservation Committee (Grace Caiazza, Stevie Knauss, Jared Rankin, and Max Taylor-Milner) who did a great deal of work to stabilize this special find, and to prepare it for public display.

BUT OF SPECIAL INTEREST, and much less well-known, is the recent TRANS-AMERICAN ESTAR(SER) RESEARCH EXPEDITION, undertaken in August of 2022, in connection with the translation of the Frye Trunk from the Milcom Memorial Reading Room and Attention Library in Jersey City (where it had been the subject of the research reflected in the new monograph) to the Frye Art Museum in Seattle (for the new exhibition).  This cross-country trip was made conjoint with a series of formal, semi-formal, and fully-informal site-visits and collecting stops — all of the greatest interest to anyone familiar with the history of the Order of the Third Bird (together with its associated [and disassociated] movements, communities, collectives, etc.).  The editors of Communiqués recently received an informative research report from one of the members of the traveling party, THE DIARY OF OREN S. UNDERWOOD.  Click on the “hyperlink” to consult the full document. And click on the image below for an actual glimpse of video footage from the expedition itself….

Edgar Allen Poe and the Order of the Third Bird?

No formal documentation thus far surfacing in the W-Cache—or, for that matter, in other repositories—directly links Edgar Allen Poe (1809 – 1849) to the Avis Tertia. However, there have been a number of efforts over the years to suggest that this celebrated (and notoriously macabre) American writer did indeed have connections to associates of the Order working in the antebellum United States (see, for instance, Michael Neet, “‘Quoth the Raven’: Baltimore Birds and the Writing of The Raven,” proceedings of ESTAR(SER), Vol. 11, No. 4 [1967]: 62-83).

Recent correspondence from an ESTAR(SER) affiliate in Paris reopens this question along what is, we believe, a new line of inquiry. The following will orient interested readers:

I was struck this past summer in the course of a beach-read of Edgar Allen Poe’s brutal Berenice (1835) by the unmistakable odor of the Order.  Those familiar with the story will recall that it centers on a young and ill-fated couple, BOTH of whom suffer from what must be understood as a disfiguring hypertrophy of the attentional faculty. Just as the black bird in Poe’s celebrated Raven would seem to smack of a sepulchral and pessimistic “take” on Birdishness, Berenice strongly suggests a stern warning to all those who would cultivate extreme/metempsychotic forms of attention. Was Poe again harping resentfully on the activities of the Avis Tertia on account of the perceived slights documented by Michael Neet in his classic article? It seems likely. I am enclosing, here, a transcription of the key early passage in which the attentional fixations of the two main characters are explicitly invoked:

Among the numerous train of maladies superinduced by that fatal and primary one which effected a revolution of so horrible a kind in the moral and physical being of my cousin may be mentioned as the most distressing and obstinate in its nature a species of epilepsy not unfrequently terminating in trance itself – trance very nearly resembling positive dissolution, and from which her manner of recovery was, in most instances, startlingly abrupt. In the meantime my own disease – for I have been told that I should call it by no other appellation – my own disease, then, grew rapidly upon me, and assumed finally a monomaniac character of a novel and extraordinary form – hourly and momently gaining vigour — and at length obtaining over me the most incomprehensible ascendancy. This monomania, if I must so term it, consisted in a morbid irritability of those properties of the mind in metaphysical science termed the “attentive.” It is more than probable that I am not understood, but I fear, indeed, that it is in no manner possible to convey to the mind of the merely general reader an adequate idea of that nervous intensity of interest with which, in my case, the powers of meditation (not to speak technically) busied and buried themselves in the contemplation of even the most ordinary objects of the universe.

To muse for long unwearied hours, with my attention riveted to some frivolous device on the margin, or in the typography of a book – to become absorbed, for the better part of a summer’s day, in a quaint shadow falling aslant upon the tapestry or upon the floor – to lose myself, for an entire night, in watching the steady flame of a lamp or the embers of a fire – to dream away whole days over the perfume of a flower – to repeat, monotonously, some common word until the sound by dint of frequent repetition, ceased to convey any idea whatever to the mind; to lose all sense of motion or physical existence by means of absolute bodily quiescence long and obstinately persevered in: such were a few of the most common and least pernicious vagaries induced by a condition of the mental faculties – not, indeed, altogether unparalleled, but certainly bidding defiance to anything like analysis or explanation. Yet let me not be misapprehended…

Appreciation for this fascinating lead; further work, following up, would be of great interest.

Vintage ESTAR(SER) Research Film (Amazing!)

Sometimes the post brings the most extraordinary things.  As many readers will know, the Milcom Memorial Room and Attention Library has been closed for much of the Pandemic, and that has meant a considerable backlog of correspondence.  On a recent visit, the current B.B. Chamberlin Fellow collected a satchel of snailmail and two shoebox-sized packages postmarked Chattanooga, Tennessee.  The latter, it has turned out, convey to the archive a remarkable clutch of ESTAR(SER) ephemera, most of which dates to the 1960s and early 1970s. The materials (which are a gift of one “Howard Kirkeyard,” not previously known to any of us) appear to have belonged to the legendary “Sonny” Kirkeyard, who briefly assumed editorial control over the Proceedings in the mid-1960s.  The gem of gems, which came to light in the smaller of the two boxes, is a short Super-8 film introducing the work of ESTAR(SER) for lay audiences.  None of us had previously seen this, or anything quite like it!  (Many thanks to Seth “Kilimanjaro” Pybas for his careful digitization of this treasure…)

Protocol of the Test Pattern?

ESTAR(SER) researchers have a longstanding interest in the ways that new media forms shift attentional behaviors and dynamics. The Order of the Third Bird has been, of course, directly affected, across history, by changing media regimes.  The work of Rein Narma, for instance, is a notable and well-studied instance of the intersection of new technologies and new forms of Bird Practice (in this case involving audio processing systems in the 1940s-1960s).  Television, too, had massive implications for the attentional regimes of mid-century America, and can be assumed to have reverberated through volées of active Birds.  Unfortunately, this remains an under-studied aspect of the history of the Avis Tertia — in large part on account of a paucity of relevant source material.  An ESTAR(SER) researcher living in Royal Oak, MI, wrote recently to the Corresponding Secretary concerning a possible lead in this ares.  She has approved the posting of the following anonymous query/announcement:

Working in the archives of the Hudson Theater, in New York City, I came recently upon a body of documents suggesting a connection between the Order of the Third Bird and the modestly successful 1950s television gameshow Feather Your Nest.  Each broadcast featured a pair of contestants who endeavored to “feather their nest” (i.e., acquire various domestic appliances and furnishings) by means of successful answers to quiz-questions. These were notionally posed by an animatronic “bird” who transited from branch to nest as a kind of countdown timer, pressuring the respondents to make their guesses briskly. The actress Janis Carter, who served as an assistant on the show, and handled the physical “feathers” that served as currency in the game, has long been thought to have been associated with a community of aesthetes operating in the museums of New York City in the mid-1950s. Be that as it may, I have come to suspect, on the basis of documentation I hope soon to publish, that a number of the Feather Your Nest broadcasts made use, surreptitiously, of “Test Pattern” interruptions that were structured to create mesmeric moments of immersive televisual attention — a kind of attention made “pure” via the dramatic attenuation of narrative or graphic “content.”  I believe I can show that a cohort of Birds, working playfully within the studio structure of NBC in those years, experimented with specific protocols geared for use on television Test Patterns.  Consider the attached sample as a suggestive instance.

We attach the video she sent along, which is indeed very striking.  More research is surely wanted in this area, and those having additional information are encouraged to convey it.


Two ESTAR(SER) Researchers Discuss Their Work

While Communiqués generally serves as a clearinghouse for specific attention-related research projects (announcing archival discoveries, reporting preliminary findings for larger works-in-progress, floating queries to the ESTAR[SER] research community), there is also some precedent for using this forum to share updates about ESTAR(SER) itself, as an association (its history, personnel, and doings).  In keeping with that tradition, we provide here a link to a recent PODCAST, produced by the Glasgow International.  In it, ESTAR(SER) associates Sal Randolph and D. Graham Burnett, both of whom have served on the board of the Milcom Memorial Reading Room and Attention Library, discuss how they have collaborated on several ESTAR(SER) undertakings over the last decade.

Shoes, Sustained Attention, Fetishes

The Case of Paulin de Barral

Modest considerations concerning a collection of stolen shoes

[A communication from ESTAR(SER) researcher Martin Pêcheur, Grenoble; Translated from the French by David De Ock]

Choderlos de Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons, the 1782 epistolary novel celebrating the louche life of the Viscount de Valmont and Madame de Merteuil, is relatively well known.  What is, however, much less widely recognized is that Laclos most likely based his main character on an actual historical personage: Paulin de Barral, a noble son of the city of Allevard, located in the Gresivaudan, a valley in the Isere region of the French Alps.

This guardsman of the king, whose reputation for licentiousness has followed him over the centuries, was forcefully separated from his worldly treasure (as well as his wife), in the very year of publication of Laclos’s literary masterpiece. Dismissed from the Court, he returned to Allevard where he became director of the region’s ironworks. His fate, as well as his amorous exploits, provide a source of entertainment and humor for the citizens of Allevard to this day.

But we shall pass over these local titters in silence, and instead turn to some important historical details, which, if they can be verified, may oblige us to reconsider the life and motives of this disgraced nobleman — he who gave himself over, in his own words, “to a life of dissipation due to my own general passivity.”

Let’s start at the beginning. In 1757, the youngster Paulin was taken by his mother, the Marquise de Montferrat, to visit Voltaire in Geneva for the purpose of receiving inoculation against smallpox. These few weeks spent at “Les Delices” provided the occasion for an episode which proves, on further examination, of considerable significance to our thesis. One evening, having received his treatment from Dr. Tronchin, and while his mother discussed domestic matters with her maid (and while Voltaire himself was occupied with some manner of correspondence), young Barral seems to have exhibited a most surprising kind of behavior. When the household reassembled from its various activities, they found him alone, completely absorbed in seemingly rapturous contemplation of a single shoe, perhaps abandoned by accident in the corridor or perhaps liberated from its accustomed home by our subject himself. The group’s initial amusement soon gave way to a sense of concern when, it seems, no one was able to rouse Paulin from his trancelike fascination.

Voltaire wrote to a friend:

“The shoe in question, standing tall on its very high heel and sloping down sharply toward its pointed toe, resembled nothing so much as a small dog drawing back in fright with its forequarters scraping the floor while its haunches point toward the sky. Said shoe was decorated with a silver buckle encrusted with rhinestones, while its embroidered flanks were enhanced by the addition of well-placed seed pearls. I confess that, beyond the awkwardness of the moment for the adults present, I could easily understand how a child, victim of his own curiosity at a tender age, could be captured by such a masterpiece. I noted that in fact I myself had not always been sufficiently attentive to such magnificent works of art, essential for courtly protocol and supportive, literally and figuratively, of so many rich conversations. The episode gave me food for thought over the course of several days.”

No reference to it is to be found in subsequent writings of the illustrious philosopher, nor indeed in any correspondence of the Marquise.

It seems to have escaped the attention of critics that, despite ample documentation, echoes of this episode reverberated in the later life of Barral. Following his death, for instance, a large armoire among his belongings was found to be stuffed with a collection of shoes, apparently stolen from the court and jealously held captive by Barral himself. This strange discovery has heretofore been attributed simply to the hoarding tendencies of the deceased, but it is now time to reevaluate the episode — in light of the scandals that led to Barral’s dismissal from the court life, and in light of a deeper emergent understanding of the place of a “Birdish” sustained attention in Barral’s life.

Historians report that two grand galas took place during this period, one at the King’s Court and the other at the chateau of Cassel. Paulin de Barral was indeed a guest at both events. These same sources report that our young count “had taken it upon himself to make an inappropriate foray through the bedchambers of the fine ladies in attendance, and appropriated for himself from the personal effects of each a single shoe of great beauty,” leaving behind, in each case, an orphan now bereft of its matching companion. With the hour of the ball at hand, there was no time for the unfortunate ladies to obtain new pairs of matching shoes.

Confronted by the pressing etiquette of appearing before the Court, the ladies faced equally unattractive alternatives. Should they arrive with one bare foot hidden as well as possible under their skirts? or fail to appear at all at such an obligatory social event? Amidst general confusion, the ladies persevered in appearing as required, but without perhaps suitable attention paid to the impact of their circumstances. Teetering on a single high heel, each hobbled and limped toward the dance floor.

And thus, for the first and last time in their distinguished histories, both Courts hosted galas based on new dance forms, during which dancers hopped, skipped, and occasionally even fell — thought apparently without ever lacking in a certain grace. At the conclusion of this eminently “forgettable” event (which was, of course, indelibly remembered), the participants’ apartments were searched and Barral was found to be in possession of forty-two shoes on the first evening and thirty-six on the second. He was, needless to say, dismissed from both Courts, permanently and without redress, a banishment effected  in less time than was required for the compromised ladies to reclaim their missing footwear.

It has even been asserted that, by the time that our thief was apprehended the second time, he had managed to erect a veritable pyramid of shoes rising from the floor of his own rooms, and was found in front of his bizarre construct, erect and composed, with eyes fixed on his creation. Half crazed, half enchanted, he was evidently absorbed as he had previously been as a child in blissful (if extravagant) contemplation. His titles and connections enabled him to avoid prison but not to escape exile.

In the context of historical research into the Order of the Third Bird, such events immediately suggest an opportunity of important historical revisionism.

Let us press on, therefore, with our analysis, and take a moment to pay special attention to Barral’s later (oblique) representation in literature. If Paulin de Barral did indeed inspire Choderlos de Laclos, do we find any indication of Valmont’s fascination with shoes over the course of Dangerous Liaisons? An initial textual review finds virtually no reference to “shoes” or “pumps,” and thus might discourage us from our line of inquiry. But this approach fails to capture the great number of occurrences of the word “foot” as used by Valmont throughout his correspondence, to wit:

“I will throw myself at your feet and into your arms, and I will prove to you, a million times in a million ways, that you are, that you will always be, the true queen of my heart.”

“Yes, I continued, I pledge at your feet that I must have you or I will die.”

“Only after this preliminary act of contrition do I dare place at your feet the humbling confession of my wanderings.”

“Love leads me back to your feet.”

“It is at your feet, it is in your heart that I place my suffering.”

“Like the knights of old who would place the spoils of their victories at the feet of their Ladies…”

“I was tempted over and over to invent a pretext to throw myself at your feet.”

“At a moment such as this, I feel a sense of identification with women of loose morals, and this leads me naturally to fall at your feet.”

“I contemplated for a few moments this angelic face, after gazing down from her head to her feet, I further indulged my glance in ascending back from her feet to her head.” [Translator’s note: “from head to toe” is the apt expression in English, but might confuse the issue for the reader in this case].

The links between these declarations and the episodes discussed above are not yet clear, and one could easily become engaged debating the sensual and symbolic dimensions of these passages. But there is one scene in the novel that should assist us in deepening our reading: that of the appearance of the “shoemaker” at the home of Cecile Volange. In a classic scholarly article from 1979, René Démoris analyzes this scene, focusing with great skill on the young girl’s name.

She is called “Cecile” — Caecilia. In Laclos’s work, there isn’t a moment of doubt. More than her quickly perverted innocence, it is blindness that defines the character. This characteristic is brought to light from the very first scene of the novel: Cecile mistakes a shoemaker, on his knees so that she can try on one of his creations, for a suitor! In her error, she reveals that she is already in the grasp of her figurative language, and unable to comprehend its literal meaning.

In fastening on the onomastic symbolism of her given name, we can take away from the scene that this “little blind girl” is conditioned to perceive the symbolic value of events, and to reject their more obvious, natural, and literal meanings. Perhaps the author wished, through this opening scene and through this character, to alert the reader to the most direct meaning of those scenes involving “feet.” Could we not imagine that, each time that the Viscount “throws himself at the feet” of the women in Dangerous Liaisons, he does so because of his fascination with their shoes? Are not these beautifully-shod feet simply a metonymy, a mechanism that serves as a subtle and ingenious means of obscuring Valmont’s attraction to the beauty of the shoes themselves?  And what we see here, of course, is quite obviously a very direct nod to the special shoe-inclinations manifested by Paulin de Barral, Choderlos de Laclos’ Grenoblois compatriot, and Valmont’s manifest original. Surely the reader can, indeed must, escape the same blindness that afflicted Cecile in order to “see” the truth!

Anonymous engraving of the Cordonnier aux pieds de Cécile (Geneva, 1793) 

What we know for certain is that Barral’s fascination with shoes remained a constant up to the time of his death. The Baron General Thiebault, in his Memoires, mentions the presence of a “personal” collection of shoes in Barral’s possession later in life, a “cache” which is likewise referenced by Georges Salamand in his work entitled Paulin de Barral un libertin dauphinois:

“Once paralyzed, Paulin de Barral had only the glass case, in which he had arranged the shoes stolen from the ladies of the Court, as an outlet for his fantasies.”

Now, rather than seeing this case as a symbol of the fanatical dreams of a complete libertine (as do General Thiebault and Georges Salamand), we prefer to view it, given our prior insights, as reflecting the contemplative dimension of a man who was, we believe, a genuine esthete.

In fact, his reputation as “totally lacking in character” and “debauched and disheveled” is based primarily on the notorious Memoir of Madame de Barral for the purpose of obtaining physical and financial separation, 1764-1784, penned by his wife, who was describing a husband from whom she wished to separate. In his own defense, Barral would eventually assert that his wife actually composed drafts of his various love letters on his behalf! And whatever the case may be in this regard, Madame de Barral’s portrait can hardly be said to be unbiased. She is, in several places, particularly dismissive of her estranged husband’s good taste, but on this matter we have other testimony — perhaps more reliable.  For instance, Alfred Bougy describes the manor house as follows:

“The interior of the residence of the last Count de Barral captures the very essence of the luxury that flourished under Louis XV during the last years of Pompadour. Rich gilding covered every surface and, at each turn, one discovered yet another boudoir.”

This good taste likewise struck Alexandre Delisle, who wrote:

“The Chateau of Allevard is large and commodious. It is surprising to find, in this out-of-the-way place, a residence furnished in such taste and decorated with numerous paintings, many by recognized masters. The gardens were shaped initially by the natural contours of the land which rose up around the area in inaccessible bluffs. The subsequent artistic planting at their base produced a picturesque setting of the highest imaginable enchantment. Down a pathway, one encountered a kiosk some sixty rods south of the chateau. It sits on a precipice above the Breda which forms several sites (‘moments,’ as the landscape architects like to say) of outstanding beauty throughout the garden. In the surrounding forests, M. de Barral had caused to be built a series of benches for the benefit of those whose curiosity about this dramatic setting had led them onto the steep pathways.”

Such observations are puzzling, as they portray Paulin de Barral as a contemplative man, responsive to the beauties of the world and of art, a man whose personal library encompassed “everything of importance to the cultivated man of the Enlightenment” (Salamand, p. 107). Can this be the same man described as possessing a stormy, disrespectful temperament? the same man whose hand required washing each time a physician wished to take his pulse, so deplorable was his personal hygiene? Such a list of charges seems, by these lights, questionable at best.

If we remove, here, the ghost of the “fetish” and the Freudian interpretations that dog this line of analysis, then new doors and dimensions of our story can be opened. It is not impossible that what really obsessed Paulin de Barral was a more subtle work of aesthetic practice, a deeper dive into “aesthesis” — which is to say, in particular, a celebration of the power of the senses, a program decried and misunderstood by his time (and, to some extent, even by our own).

Barral’s secrets will unfortunately never be completely revealed, and our principle source of information about his life is the memoir written by his wife which can hardly be considered objective. On the other hand, we do know that Barral regularly kept a notebook-diary that might have revealed such secrets. However, it is unlikely ever to be found, or so his Barral’s biographer, Georges Salamand, who refers to this missing document as the “Holy Grail” of his research:

“In 1942, the then owners of the ironworks, the Directorate of Mines of the Marine d’Homecourt, were required by the Vichy government to turn over the archives of Paulin de Barral. They were censored so badly that in 1977 I noted some overlooked items, which caused me to continue my pursuits up to this very day. But the journal of Paulin de Barral, mentioned in 1784, has disappeared forever. I am convinced that it contained ‘THE key’ to Laclos’s Dangerous Liaisons.”

Those familiar with the practices and history of the Order of the Third Bird will not find tangible proof here that Paulin de Barral belonged to this organization, evidence for the long existence of which always requires considerable effort to unearth. One additional consideration, however, may well shape our final conclusion: The Chateau Barral has recently been sold off in shares to various purchasers. One such buyer, upon undertaking a renovation of the newly acquired apartment, made a surprising discovery. When these new owners set about demolishing a closet, the family (whose name I will withhold because they wish to remain anonymous to avoid being set upon by archive-fetishists) admitted to me that they had discovered a small chest decorated with a carved wooden bird,  and containing a pair of particularly finely made shoes.

During our conversation, my source made mention of this find, before revealing inadvertently that a sheaf of papers, also found in the box, contained some brief handwritten notes. These writings have not been turned over to me, but rather lent for just enough time to copy some of the entries — although not without considerable difficulty, given the nature of the script in question. These texts are still under study at this time by our researchers and archivists, searching through what has come to be called “The W-Cache” for additional clues about the activities of this mysterious and attentionally-extravagant nobleman.

What we can say at this juncture, while we await the production of facsimiles permitting the publication of the documents, is that these notes, in their readable sections, describe the esthetic relationship that the Count maintained with each item in his collection. These observations are presented in four categories, marked by designated symbols, but not titled in words. Included in these groupings are brief letters of invitation to the Chateau for the purpose of “group contemplative practices,” or for a “meeting of the greatest esthetes of the region.” Such letters cannot possibly be taken as examples of invitations to engage in “debauchery” (as they are by Anne Giraudeau in a recent scholarly article), but rather, as those initiates of the Order of the Third Bird will recognize, these invitations almost certainly reflect familiar calls to the practice of sustained attention that has been the hallmark of the Avis Tertia throughout the ages.


Iris Murdoch, “Unselfing,” and the Birds

A brief note from a reader:

A number of commentators have remarked on the extent to which the English moral philosopher (and novelist) Iris Murdoch centered her ethics on the notion of “Attention.” Recent work would include Anil Gomes’s 2013 article in the British Journal of Aesthetics and this essay, just published last year by Christopher Cordner. It is also a fact in evidence that those interested in durational practices of attention (in the manner of the Birds, and in other traditions) have for years read in Murdoch’s 1970 volume The Sovereignty of Good for inspiration and orientation regarding “Practical Aesthesis.”

What has not, I think, been adequately delved is the remarkable “Birdishness” of what can be read as the key passage in the whole volume, to wit, the magnificent passage on page 84 of the third chapter, “The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts”:

It is impossible not to be struck by the conjunction of the notions of “unselfing” and “aesthetic experience” with an encounter with an actual bird.

Which raises the question: Was Iris Murdoch a Bird? Or in some way associated with the Birds? To my knowledge, the issue has not been explored in any depth.  But it is a fact worthy of consideration (and almost entirely overlooked) that Murdoch in fact authored, in 1978 an entire book of poems, each and every one of which treats of birds.  The volume, known as A YEAR IN BIRDS (London: Chatto and Windus and the Hogarth Press) featured original woodcut illustrations by the artist Reynolds Stone.  Much would seem to hinge on the month of August, which offers a five-line invocation of the kestrel itself, the bird we know, from Murdoch’s work on attention, figures as an allegory of that form of attention capable of transforming existence. It will be worth reproducing the verses and the woodcut, since they evidently stand at the center of a Birdish theory of attention: