Havelock and the question of ‘water’

And the dry stone no sound of water.1

When Eric Havelock moved from the University of Toronto to Harvard in 1947, he went through a difficult period.  He was leaving behind many intimate friends, longtime colleagues and a country where he had been intensely engaged, culturally and politically, for decades. He had even had run for parliament only a few years before.  At the same time, in common with thinking people everywhere, he was in shock from the revelations of German concentration camps during WW2 and the American use of atomic bombs in 1945.

His dark mood was reflected in his writing at the time. Here is he is from the abstract for his 1949 lecture, ‘The Journey of Aeneas through the Waste Land

the poetic equation [of the Aeneid] is (…) complicated. (a) The smooth and dignified surface of the theme is continually violated by the upthrust of something emotionally uncontrolled and violent, an internal disturbance of the poetic consciousness which almost cancels the poem’s basic faith in heaven, history, and man. (b) The narrative epic of action is in part an illusion, devised to put on parade a series of states of the inner consciousness. The poem is to some degree a dream, or more correctly a nightmare.

And here are two passages from the beginning of his 19502 monograph, The Crucifixion of Intellectual Man (Chapter 1: ‘The Bitter Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge’):

We tap and scratch the surface of the rock on which we stand and find that it is indeed the rock of ages, printed with the map of a violent and illimitable history. Surveying it, our imagination abdicates and our comprehension of time breaks down. In place of the generations and centuries which mark our own frontiers, we substitute the trackless waste of geological aeons, and so drift back to the formless lava of a primeval furnace. In that day our human race was not, and was not thought of. In those temperatures it had no conceivable place. Such is the conclusion we draw, mechanically and meaninglessly. The reality is kept from us by our self-consciousness. Perhaps if we could put God there, he could make of geological time a furnished room for us once more, for us to inhabit, even though the only voice we heard was the voice of consuming fire.

Who dare say that justice is any more eternal in the heavens? It is a name, a sound of approval, voiced by an ephemeral species to indicate some crawling pattern of preference, on a speck of dust, in the vast halls of space and time. Who dare say that man any more keeps company with angels, in those trackless wastes beyond the sun and moon? Who dare say his intelligence, so long mastered by illusion, so long convinced that it stood at the point of judgment in a measurable and estimable environment, a cosmos organized by a permanent and stable providence — who dare say that intelligence has any health in it, any metaphysic, any revelation above the energy of the blind groping of a worm?

The trope of The Waste Land or “trackless waste” appears throughout. As does the note of “an internal disturbance (…) which almost cancels (…) basic faith in heaven, history, and man”. Almost?

By 1950 such “basic faith” seemed to be threatened by more than a “disturbance”: “If we could put God there”…”intelligence, so long mastered by [the] illusion [of] a permanent and stable providence”… “who dare say that intelligence has any health in it, (…) any revelation above the energy of the blind groping of a worm?” This from a man who had been an active Christian socialist and a firm believer in cosmic and earthly justice during all his years in Canada!

Only a few years before these 1949-1950 texts, in ‘Virgil’s Road to Xanadu’ (1946-1947), Havelock had concluded with these lyrical lines:

And so, as primitive geography merged into the likeness of primaeval cosmology, there began to be heard from far the distant roar of Virgil’s rivers of the world, rising in their subterranean caverns, ranging over the earth from equatorial mountains to the ice-fields of the north. The navigators long ago had sighted landfall and found mighty rivers and explored cataracts at peril of their life. (…) And the geometer and the scientist had listened and told them where they had been. (…) And the philosophers had meditated and learnedly said of water that it surely is a powerful thing and permeates all and controls all and moves beneath us. Surely the earth itself must lie on water. And the poet listened to them all, and his enchanted ear caught the rumble of subterranean seas beneath his feet. Before his mind’s eye magic fountains issued from the depths and sprang into the air. Torrents cascaded between cliffs that had stood since the world began. He felt the icy breath of northern ranges, and was borne as in a dream on the bosom of irresistible currents. The road to Xanadu was open. (3: 18)

The difference in tone between the Xanadu essay and the slightly later passages is remarkable. What had been a delightful dream of “subterranean seas” and “magic fountains” that were “borne (…) on the bosom of irresistible currents” was now — a “nightmare”. Moreover, Havelock was hardly alone in this turn.  With different timing and with different degrees of insight and intensity, the whole world made it. Indeed, Nietzsche had seen it coming 60 and more years before:

Die Wüste wächst: weh dem, der Wüsten birgt!3

The wasteland waxes: vex [comes] to those begetting wastelands!4

Eliot, too, had sensed it 30 or 40 years before (with many others, like Ezra Pound) — leading to The Waste Land in 1922.

The great need was to understand what had happened here and especially to learn if it were definitive or in some way reversible. Or, at least, if not exactly reversible, at least subject to amelioration in some way.

Harold Innis understood the turn as a catastrophic collapse of the time sector in the spectrum of space-time possibilities. This had been caused, remarkably enough, by the hypertrophy of time — too much time had led to the foreshortening of time and even to the loss of time altogether:

The general argument [of my book] has been powerfully developed (…) by E. A. Havelock in The Crucifixion of Intellectual Man (Boston, 1951). Intellectual man of the nineteenth century was the first to estimate absolute nullity in time.  (Harold Innis, The Strategy of Culture, ‘Preface’, 1952)

Havelock had said as much himself. In the face of “the trackless waste of geological aeons”, he observed (as cited above), “our comprehension of time breaks down”.

Innis’ general theory was that cultures are “bound” by some space-time correlation from a spectrum of possibilities ranging from the purely “time-bound” at one end of the range to the purely “space-bound” at the other.  In the middle of the spectrum the two exist in relative balance and it was here alone that social stability was to be found: “a stable society is dependent on an appreciation of a proper balance between the concepts of space and time” (‘A Plea for Time’, 1947).

Associated with time-boundedness for Innis were oral cultures (vs literate ones), the ear (vs the eye), relatively permanent and immobile media like stone (vs disposable and easily transportable media like paper).  Space-boundedness had the reverse associations.

McLuhan took over all these determinations5, especially the derivative one of “acoustic space” (vs “visual space”) and, apparently less noticeably (given the remarkable lack of research attention), arrested time (vs chronological time). But whereas Innis tended to look at the relative weights of the poles of the configurations comprising the spectrum of their possibilities, McLuhan also looked at the implicated spectrum of the relations between such poles (which was, of course, isomorphic with the range of the ratios or relative weights of the poles):

The low visual definition of the environment favored a high degree of tactile and acoustic stress. At this end of the sensory spectrum individuality is created by the interval of tactile involvement. At the other end of the sensory spectrum we encounter the familiar mode of individuality based on visual stress and fragmentary separateness. The visual sense  lends itself to fragmentation and separateness for reasons quite antithetic to the monolithic and integral quality created by the tactile interval. (Through the Vanishing Point, 222)

Corresponding to two sorts of “interval” or “gap”, McLuhan contrasts two sorts of relationship here, one of “involvement” and one of ” separateness”.  At the base of experience is a “sensory spectrum” consisting of a range of relationships between “acoustic stress” and “visual stress”. The meaning of any experience depends first of all on which of these has been activated:

The meaning of meaning is relationship. (Take Today, 3)

But what was it that enabled something like relationship in the first place?

Here again, an indication could be found in Havelock with water standing in for relation:

the philosophers had meditated and learnedly said of water that it surely is a powerful thing and permeates all and controls all and moves beneath us. Surely the earth itself must lie on water. And the poet [Virgil] listened to them all, and his enchanted ear caught the rumble of subterranean seas beneath his feet. Before his mind’s eye magic fountains issued from the depths and sprang into the air. Torrents cascaded between cliffs that had stood since the world began. He felt the icy breath of northern ranges, and was borne as in a dream on the bosom of irresistible currents. The road to Xanadu was open. (3: 18)

The road to Xanadu in Havelock’s understanding was an “irresistible current”, or relationship, between above and below, north and south, consciousness and the unconscious, surface and depth, old and new, etc, and it was exactly such relationship as water that he found articulated in the concluding section of Virgil’s Georgics:

These [tales in the poem’s last section] are focused, if that is the best word, in certain master images, of fountains and rivers, of gorges and caverns, and of rivers in caverns. The first [musical] movement [the tale of Aristaeus] introduces the boy “weeping at the sacred river’s source”. The mother who responds is “in her chamber beneath the river’s depth”; her mermaids reside “in their glass-green abodes”. The boy descends “to the pools set deep in caverns and plangent glades”. This key-note once struck is sustained [in the second movement] in the resonant sea-cave of Proteus, [in the third in] the river bank on which Eurydice dies, [and then in further movements in] the solitary shore (…) on which Orpheus laments, the vasty halls of death through which glides the “awful stream”, the icy caverns of the north, and the gorge where Orpheus’ last cry still echoes down the tide. These [master] images [of water] are the real stuff of the poetry. They interpenetrate the panels of the composition and dissolve their [independent] integrity. (1: 5-6)

Havelock also cited further ancients making a similar depiction, like Plato:

For everywhere over the earth’s surface you have many hollow places, very various in shape and size, to which the water and mist and vapour drain (…) These places all have connections with each other underground, some narrower, some broader, with passages and openings. In this way much water flows from one to the other as though decanted from bowl to bowl. (…) One of the earth-chasms, besides being the largest, is pierced right through the whole earth (…) Into it flow all the rivers in confluence, and out of it they issue again, each afterwards taking on the individual character of the territories through which they happen to flow. The reason for the inflow and outflow of the streams is that the liquid, having no bottom or fundament, hangs suspended in space and moves in tidal waves up and down, and the air and wind about it does the same thing. (3:17, translating Plato, Phaedo 111e-112d)

And like the pre-Socratics generally and the Roman, Seneca, more than half a millennium after them:

Finally, lurking behind the roar of these romantic waters was that ancient pre-Socratic cosmology of the “waters under the earth”, the “vast sea…in the depths of the earth” (the phrases are Seneca’s). This subterranean sea was the source at once of all the world’s great rivers, and also of the circumambient Ocean, to which [source] they all return. (2: 6)

Havelock understood even the form of Plato’s work in this same light:

The dialogue format in which Plato cast his reflections indirectly allowed him to memorialise his master and friend [Socrates]. But there were other reasons for such a literary choice, which lay rooted in the character of his philosophy. Imaginary conversations, with their mimicry of the spoken as against the written word, could alone supply that fluid medium in which the sense of overlapping concepts and interpenetration of ideas might be continuously suggested.6

In sum, water supplies the, or at least a, “master image” of what “interpenetrates” and is therefore what first enables something like language (the interpenetration of sound with sound, sound with meaning, and speaker with auditor), society (the interpenetration of people with one another), history (the interpenetration of times), truth (the interpenetration of mind with reality), and religion (the interpenetration of humans with the divine).

McLuhan’s take on the turn reflected in Havelock’s 1950 Crucifixion book was recorded in a lecture he gave in 1954 before the Catholic Renascence Society:

Today many thoughtful people are torn between the claims of time and space, and speak even of The Crucifixion of Intellectual Man as he is mentally torn in these opposite directions.

This analysis went back to Innis and to Innis’ view of the fundamentality of the variable ratio between space and time. It agreed with Innis that social and intellectual instability results from a lack of balance between the two. What happens in such an unbalanced or “torn” situation is that the fundamental relation or interpenetration of space and time becomes attenuated and even lost altogether. But in the ancient view as presented by Havelock, this was to lose an appreciation for water. Hence McLuhan’s attempt to point out for us fish the water which (known or unknown) binds together and underlies our existing environment — without which we could not communicate or, indeed, be at all:

We don’t know who discovered water but we are pretty sure it wasn’t a fish! We are all in this position, being surrounded by some environment or element that blinds us totally; the message of the fish theme is a very important one, and just how to get through to people that way is quite a problem. (Contribution to Technology and World Trade, 1966)

  1. Eliot, The Waste Land, I. The Burial of the Dead.
  2. Havelock’s Crucifixion of Intellectual Man was released in the UK in 1950, in the US in 1951.
  3.  Nietzsche wrote the Dionysos-Dithyramben in 1888, but had long sensed the coming of nihilism and the devastation it would bring.
  4. My translation: Nietzsche’s singular here (dem, der … birgt) has been rendered in the plural (those).  A different translation, and of all the Dionysos-Dithyramben, is available at the Nietzsche channel.
  5. Cf, ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’, 1953: “The press exists primarily as a means of spatial communication and control. Its time-binding powers are quite puny.”
  6. Havelock, ‘Introduction’ to Socrates and the Soul of Man, a translation of the Phaedo by Desmond Stewart, 1951.