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Roses, wax, and fire; matrix and corinthian metal

March 7, 2012

In Paul Valéry’s “Platonic” dialogue Eupalinos, or the Architect, published 1932, Phaedrus seeks out Socrates in Hades to discuss the nature of art. Near the beginning Phaedrus spends several pages recounting a conversation he once had with Eupalinos, an architect who, among other things, excavated a tunnel to bring water to Athens, and for this reason is called the first hydraulics engineer. In what follows Phaedrus’ version of Eupalinos is the first speaker, Phaedrus’ version of himself is the second.

“What is important for me above all else is to obtain from that that which is going to be, that it should with all the vigor of its newness satisfy the reasonable requirements of that which has been. How can one help being obscure?… Listen: one day I saw a cluster of roses and modeled it in wax. When I had finished this model, I put it in sand. Hurrying Time reduces the roses to nothing; and fire promptly returns the wax to its natural formlessness. But the wax having fled its heated mold and now being lost, the dazzling liquid of the bronze comes to wed in the hardened sand the hollow identity of the smallest petal….”

“I understand! Eupalinos. This riddle is transparent to me; the myth is easy to translate.
“Do not those roses that were fresh and that perish before your eyes stand for all things about us and for moving life itself? As for the model of wax that you made, employing it upon your deft fingers, despoiling with your eye the corollas, and returning laden with flowers to your work–is that now an image of your daily labors, enriched by the commerce between your acts and your latest observations?–The fire is Time itself, which would entirely abolish or scatter abroad into the wide world both the real roses and your roses of wax, if your being did not in some way preserve, I know not how, the forms of your experience and the secret solidity of its own reason…. As for the liquid bronze, it surely stands for the exceptional powers of your soul and the tumultuous state of something that wills to be born. This incandescent bounty would be dissipated in vain heat and infinite reverberations, and would leave behind nothing but ingots or irregular streaks of run metal, if you were not able to lead it by mysterious conduits to cool down and to bestow itself in the purest matrix of your wisdom. Your being must therefore of necessity divide itself and become, at one and the same instant, hot and cold, fluid and solid, free and fast–roses, wax, and fire; matrix and Corinthian metal.”

“Exactly! But I told you that I merely try my hand at it.”

“How do you set about it?”

“As best I can.”

I can’t help but think that T.S. Eliot read this essay before writing Four Quartets. Of course the connection of rose with fire is by no means original to either writer (it shows up, for example, in Dante’s Paradiso), but something about Eliot’s version reminds me more of Valéry than Dante. Valéry too talks about the “still points” that show up again in the last lines of the fifth movement of “Little Gidding”:

Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

It’s hard to come by a copy of Eupalinos, at least if you can’t read French. (The only books I can find on Amazon that include it look extremely dubious.) For some reason he’s not popular in the English-speaking world. But it’s worth tracking down a copy if you care about modernist poetry, modernist poetics, the quarrel of art and philosophy, or understanding the myriad variations of “The point of intersection of the timeless / With time”.

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