Monday, October 24, 2011

all things act

Atoms, says the Roman poet Lucretius, who never in De Rerum Natura uses the word atoms -- atoms are tiny elemental objects, "seeds" and "primal particles" and they slip past one another, or else hook and stay close; boundaries hold them in and so they become people or cattle; and there are voids between them, either smaller or larger voids, depending on their purpose.

Besides, if there were not
Some smaller thing, each tiniest body must
Of infinite particles consist, since halves of halves
Will still have halves, not aught will set a bound.
How then will differ the full sum of things
From least of things?

he argues in William Ellery Leonard's 1916 translation, and then states that

... whatso'er
Itself is without parts can ne'er possess
The properties creative matter needs
Must have -- bonds, weights and blows diverse,
Meetings and motions, whereby all things act.

So if we are going to have bodies then we need to have parts, very minute parts, unseeable, invisible parts, but parts. It was 54 BC and he had learnt his atoms from the Epicureans. He wonders, How do we see? and comes up with this answer: that visible objects fire off waves of particles, and our eye receives them. "Since from all things, of whatsoever kind / Matter doth ever flow; so some will shed / Bodies that strike the eye and stir our sight." We hear like this too, he says, we receive waves of sound-seeds, the squek and chirrup of the UNLV basketball players as they warmed up before their scrimmage, for example, the noise of their rubber soles trapping on the polished floor as they ran across the court one way and then back the other way, taking small steps deliberately to juice up their muscles, which were moving there, under the baggy shorts, there, under the skin, the cords flexing and clenching, and all that blood moving, those tall cathedrals on the move, bone staircase, ropes of vessels up and down like pneumatic tubes (prevented by Lucretius' boundaries from dissolving into a universal mass of loose atoms), lovely doomed engineered pieces, one with a chinstrap beard.

Their soles made a specific high-pitched chirp, which was also the sound of the rosellas in the big gum tree in the street behind our house in Melbourne. Those rosellas would mumble around the flowers with their beaks and toes, and then they'd launch themselves into the air like those atomic sense-seed particles and skim down the road in trios, shooting off -- and then you'd think to look up and stare for a moment and the rest of the flock, still in the tree, would become visible to you. A few individuals came out and there were the rest behind them, a single enigmatic clambering body; it was like Fernando Pessoa firing off his heteronyms. Out come the heteronyms with their names and histories (Ricardo Reis, Alexander Search, the Crosse brothers; all the rest of his creations) and somewhere behind this mass of commentary by unbodied people you sense Pessoa, who is thinking, "it so scares me, like a dark forest, to pass through the mystery of speaking" as he writes letters to Ophelia, the woman he never married, and to the fat-faced poet Mário de Sá-Carneiro, who at the age of twenty-five kept his word about the strychnine.

These tiny things, these atoms, these seeds, round seeds, I'll say, ball-shaped walled seeds -- if atoms had looked like this then the atomic bomb would have been something else, it would have blown up and the balls would have -- inflated, I'm going to say inflated -- they would have swollen into spheres about ten centimetres in diameter, and the two cities in Japan would have looked like the room of plastic balls at Ikea, which was a treat for me when I was little, and the people are not dead but rising up in shock, with balls dropping off them, ah what power, let us stop the war at once (says the emperor) or they will send something worse next time.

And now these balls, what do they do with them -- the balls roll away, the wind picks them up, and they stand in whirlwinds on streetcorners with one foot forward (which was the way I saw a column of petals standing once, in Mito, at an intersection on the way to the railway station, a tornado only three feet high, waiting to cross the street, with one toe in the gutter, and if petals are not heavy then these airy atoms will not be heavy either) -- so there are tornadoes and winds of coloured balls, rolling off the land and into the sea until the main island of Japan is sending off flotillas of expanded particles, and making itself internationally visible with this large-scale demonstration of Lucretius' Epicurean ideas about the senses.

The multicoloured balls float to other countries, and these other countries receive them on their beaches, which are functioning, in this instance, as eyes, and so the other countries believe that Japan resembles a bowl of hundreds and thousands.

But this is too hectic, frowns Lucretius, who has stopped existing (his boundary broke, so did Pessoa's, and who can prove that the baby Pessoa was not in fact assembled out of dispersed Lucretius), no, he says, the balls during their long journey would have sloshed around at random on the waves and this is not how my particles and atoms work. They maintain their formations. For this to be right, your Ikea balls need to land on those other countries looking exactly like Japan when the sand sees them. How are they going to do that? you ask him, severely perplexed and not knowing how it's possible. They are atoms, he tells you, still not using that word. They will know what to do.

That scrap of Pessoa comes from his early play, The Mariner, and I found it translated by Richard Zenith in the Selected Prose of Fernando Pessoa. In this play there are three characters called Watchers, and the Third Watcher says, "When speaking, I think about what's going on in my throat and my words seem like people … My fear is larger than me. I can feel in my hand, I don't know how, the key to an unknown door. And I'm suddenly, all of me, a talisman or tabernacle conscious of itself. That's why it so scares me, like a dark forest, to pass through the mystery of speaking."

The chinstrap beard belongs to a player named Carlos Lopez.

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