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December 2013 || Articles

Texts Disclosing Nothing: Michael Maier, Atalanta fugiens (1617), and Gunnar Wærness, Bli verden (2007)

by Andreas Lombnæs

Percevoir et imaginer sont aussi antithétiques que presence et absence. Imaginer c’est s’absenter, c’est s’élancer vers une vie nouvelle.1 

[To perceive and to imagine are as different as presence and absence. To imagine is to absent oneself, it is to launch oneself towards a new life]

The great book-based religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, have all at times considered pictorial representations – of God, human beings, or anything – as sensual threats to the spirit.2  In the modern era, the secular rationalists devalue the graphic aspects of language as much as rabbis, priests, and imams devalue the body and its senses. If not noxious, the materiality of language is considered indifferent (or aesthetically and rhetorically supplementary) to its cognitive and practical functions. In literary realism the reader is manipulated to forget the fictional and linguistic status of plot and characters.3  Most readings of complex texts take it for granted that verbal and pictorial elements supplement each other, adding up to a true representation of reality itself, whether the author’s intention, or some ‘matter of fact’. This may account for the success of the social semiotics of Kress and van Leeuwen, as well as for its less evident troubling effects. In this school, if not by the masters themselves, multimodal communication is considered felicitous when verbal, auditory, and pictorial modalities co-operate to corroborate a certain frame of understanding and fill in a few facts.

In Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus Ludwig Wittgenstein conceives of a ‘picture’ in ‘logical space’ that may be projected by a linguistic proposition. According to W. J. T. Mitchell this was mistaken by the logical positivists for an unmediated window on reality, a fulfilment of the seventeenth-century dream of a perfect, transparent language.4  However, whether they are on paper or projected in the mind’s eye, Wittgenstein’s pictures are, to Mitchell, artificial, conventional signs. To understand a picture is to grasp the ways in which it shows what cannot be seen.

Granted that human spiritual and practical life is bound to signs, and signs are sensual and material phenomena, it should be rewarding to look at the use of signs in multimodal texts, as a medium tends to be invisible until called into question by a competing medium or modality. Confrontation highlights the strength and the weakness of each modality, what it can do, and what it cannot. For the same reason old texts should be confronted with contemporary ones. While old texts by necessity have to be interpreted by living people, thus inside a modern horizon, new texts are echoes of the ancient. Whether consciously or not, modern texts are in fact interpreted by old ones, and vice versa. Comparison should help us discern the prejudices of our time.

Compound texts have coexisted for centuries with pictorial writing and early alphabets, and printed ones have existed for over 400 years. The Danish (Holsteinian) physician Michael Maier’s Atalanta fugiens, published in 1617, makes use of the same semiotic resources as Nils-Aslak Valkeapää’s Trekways of the Wind, published in 1994.5  With the exception of music scores, the same applies to Bli verden – a collection of what could be termed ‘graphic poems’ published in 2007 by the Norwegian poet and artist Gunnar Wærness.6  Separately and together, these exceptionally complex texts challenge the founding concepts of multimodal theory by insisting on the similarity and interrelation of picture and word, as well as their incommensurability.

There could not be two kinds of pictorial language any more than there are two kinds of verbal language. As with poetry what matters is not whether it differs from ordinary language (this may be the case, or may not), but rather whether its language discloses its own artifice. Even the most ordinary postcard scenery may be read in numerous and conflicting ways, depending on sender, addressee, and more or less hidden cultural and historic conventions. This indeterminacy of what is there, or is not there, may be either underscored or conjured away. Multi- as well as monomodal texts in most cases serve precise religious, political, and economic goals. To fulfil this task, as in modern marketing, concealment is as important as the revelation of truth, or facts.

With his Emblemata (1531) the Italian humanist Andrea Alciato initiated a genre in which pictures and verbal texts interpret each other. The picture in this tripartite composite adds meaning to the short inscriptio, which is itself explained in the subscriptio. Drawing on the reader’s knowledge and imagination, the translation back and forth from one kind of text to another will deepen that reader’s understanding of the emblem’s topic, at the same time deferring a complete comprehension. While the emblem’s components taken one by one may be easily recognized, clear and concrete (or for that matter incomprehensible), their interaction opens up new meanings, in ways that point to an ultimate unreadability. What obstructs meaning is also what engenders (new) meanings, and vice versa. The task of interpretation is unequivocally left to the addressee.

Taking its clue from Mitchell, the present paper will argue that meaning is a process, translating from one discourse or modality to another. Rather than tying an utterance to a common ground of unmediated reality, the transformation that is ‘meaning’ is a semiosis in principle leading further and further away from the Real, plain and simple. This is not to dispute the fact that people find their way with the help of maps or verbal descriptions, or that they may understand a poem and even the Bible in the same concrete, literal way. The latter agreement may, of course, depend on custom, lack of examination, or even lack of interest – forms of understanding that undermine the very concepts of art and religion. Clearly a community cannot rest until an adequate understanding of such matters has been established. Shared beliefs are more essential than shared truths. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard may be right that humans are what they are by choice, not by external circumstances. In this perspective it is a problem that moral matters are supposed to obey the logic of the physical world. You may find the Pantheon with the help of a guidebook, but not necessarily God or the good life. And while Einsteinian relativity may be irrelevant to everyday life, common sense does not cope with the paradoxes of the universe. Meaning may be no less paradoxical, yet, unlike Einsteinian relativity, meaning evidently does apply to everyday experience.

An obvious case would be the interpretation of, let us say, a poem, referring the text’s rhetorical inventory to religious, philosophical, psychological, or other theories. Early modern texts and their late modern successors either try to hide their material sign-character, or they reveal it. The first endeavour might be termed Realist, the second Symbolist. In different ways they both disclose Nothing. Foregrounding the reality of its subject matter, a pragmatic, efficient text has to occlude its material grounding, not disclosing its own thing-ness. Conversely, a text focusing on its own functioning inevitably exposes the hypothetical status or even nothingness of its reference. The two strategies are opposite and incompatible: it is impossible to combine them in one text. And yet, to exclude one is equally difficult. As a ‘motivated’ sign, the picture appears closer to the reality of the eye and other senses than do words. However, no more or less material than the verbal sign, a picture is as much a negation of the given real as the verbally induced image. To conceive images – to ‘imagine’ – is not only to leave the real world, it is an opening of a pure possibility, a move towards a new life. In the words of phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard: ‘Imaginer c’est s’absenter, c’est s’élancer vers une vie nouvelle’ [To imagine is to absent oneself, it is to launch oneself towards a new life].7  Texts made of verbal and/or pictorial signs are, then, artefacts that turn away from the material or ideal things texts pretend to ‘speak’ about, and, in this trope or metaphor, turn towards what is not yet a thing, because it is pure futurity. On the next few pages we shall compare two ways of disclosing the no-thing-ness of texts.

Baroque Similarities: The Case of Alchemy

Michael Maier’s Atalanta fugiens, is a kind of dissertation is a kind of dissertation in the form of a mythic-allegoric tale, consisting of fifty emblems complete with inscriptio (or motto ), pictura (or imago ), and subscriptio, the last in the form of Latin epigrams set to music, with German translations. We should note the story-line implied by the title: the myth of Atalanta and Hippomenes, with the foot-race in which Atalanta is a competitor as well as the prize, the couple’s sexual union in a temple consecrated to Zeus, and their tragic separation by the infuriated god. With copperplate-engravings, musical scores of fugues, or rather two-part canons, bilingual poems and discourses elaborating the emblems, we have a multimodal (and multigeneric) œuvre as satisfying as any which does not involve data technology.

The first emblem bears the heading ‘Portavit eum ventus in ventre suo’ [The wind carried him in his belly], beneath which is displayed a personification of the North Wind, Boreas, with a fœtus in his belly.8  In the accompanying fugue the first two lines of the Latin epigram are sung first by Atalanta, then by Hippomenes, and last by the arresting apple. This third voice is the same throughout; the other ones are sung in canon. This musical form may well convey the impression of a race, whether the blowing wind, or the fleeing woman and the pursuing man. Thus the three modes – music, image, and verbal language – support each other as thoroughly as in a modern textbook or sales brochure. Still, Maier’s harmonization of modalities tends to have an effect which is the opposite of what is expected. In this case the likeness of a musical form to an image is just the beginning. The ‘Author’s Epigram’ at the start of Atalanta fugiens likens the mythological couple Atalanta and Hippomenes to the chemical substances mercury and sulphur, while the Discourse on Emblem I draws further startling parallels:

Now from fumes or winds (which are nothing else but Air in Motion) being coagulated, Water is produced, & from Water mixed with earth all minerals & metals do proceed. And even these last are said to consist of & be immediately coagulated from fumes, so that whether He be placed in Water or fume the thing is the same; for one as well as the other is the master of Wind. The same the more remotely may be said of Minerals & Metals, but the Question is: Who is He that ought to be carried by Winds? I answer: Chymically it is Sulphur which is carried in Argent Vive (contained in quicksilver), as Lully in his Codicill cap. 32 & all other Authors attest. [*] Physically it is the Embryo, which in a little time ought to be borne into the light. I say also that Arithmetically it is the Root of a Cube; Musically it is the Disdiapason [i.e. an interval of two octaves]; Geometrically it is a point, the beginning of a continued running line; Astronomically it is the Centre of the Planets Saturn, Jupiter & Mars.9 

‘Everything’ resembles everything, that is. The alchemic doctrine does not come across clearly, neither does the author’s intention, nor the precise nature or the goal of the process described. There is, however, an excess of explanation and illustration, an overstating of the point, an overdoing in all respects.

To take matter (earth, fire, metals) seriously may in itself be to contest the one-sided spirituality of the Christian doctrine. Camouflaging your thinking as chemical experiments, as gold-making, might well invite charlatans and imposters, but it should keep you from the hands of the Inquisition. In any case Maier’s gold is certainly not the gold of the vulgar. He presents a world where, as Walter Benjamin comments on allegory, ‘any person, any object, any relationship can mean absolutely anything else’ – a world where everything resembles everything because everything is born of One, being thus part of the same entirety.10  Because of this affinity, not only can lead be transformed into gold, the basest creature or stone may be exalted. Power is concentrated at the centre where all chains of transformation meet. ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’ is just one of the names of this hub, which has the power to transform, to rejuvenate, making everything perfect. The goal of the philosopher-alchemist is to attain this unity, though it may only be approached experimentally, by imitation of a natural process.

‘Unity’ sounds simple, but then unity is not to be grasped in language; it is not even to be imagined – as indicated by Plotinus, quoted by Edgar Wind:

‘He that would speak exactly,’ wrote Plotinus, ‘must not name it [the ultimate One] by its name or by that; we can but circle, as it were, about its circumference, seeking to interpret in speech our experience of it, now shooting near the mark, and again disappointed of our aim by reason of the antinomies we find in it.11 

In Emblema XXXIII, the pictura shows a monstrous, presumably dead human being on a pyre (if that is what it is) in a night scene (see Figure 1)
fig. 1. Maier, Emblema XXXIII
. It is not difficult to imagine that in the seventeenth century a person combining the two sexes side-by-side (the organs are discernible in the picture) should be burned, and a two-headed creature equally so. This is to read the emblem from outside the emblem tradition. Most striking in a picture, any picture, is the materiality and uniqueness of the event. This is an effect primary to belief or doubt concerning the picture’s referentiality.

The inscriptio gives the same information, implying that the person merely resembles a corpse, and adding that she/he needs the fire: ‘Hermaphroditus mortuo similis, in tenebris jacens, igne indiget’ [The hermaphrodite like one dead, lying in darkness, requires fire]. This proposition could of course be ironic or metaphoric. Looking again at the picture you would notice the new moon anticipating the full moon, showing two faces at the same time, and also the tree with a dead and a fresh bough, the latter pointing down, the former upwards – like the flames and smoke, and even the left (feminine?) head. With legs spread and two heads, the body forms a cross of St Andrew. The background might be trees and mountains, or waves and foam. These details support the ‘needy’ condition implied in ‘indiget’, as well as the general, allegorical significance of the hermaphrodite, and of dark, death, and fire.

Turning to the Latin epigram making up the subscriptio, the hermaphrodite’s problem is stated to be lack of moistness, a lack of vigour, perhaps motivating concealment in the dark. The connection of fire (or heat) to life is well established. If loss of life is a kind of drying up, however, fire is not the evident cure. At this point there is a reference to the (Philosopher’s) Stone and its power, which obviously is not to be represented in a picture as it is totally hidden in the fire: ‘Omnis in igne latet lapidis vis’ [All the power of the stone lies hidden in the fire] (line 5). The hiding may indicate that the agent is not the fire considered as a ‘thing’, but rather the power for transformation that is ‘in’ the fire. In addition to the power of the Stone two other powers are mentioned, that of sulphur and of mercury, residing in gold and silver respectively. Nothing of this is to be seen in the picture, unless perhaps in the moon, connected to silver (and femininity). Gold of course is connected to the sun, which here is only indirectly represented by moon and darkness. The crescent moon is actually completed with a circle indicating the full moon and the rhythms of the sublunary world. From this perspective the circle might as well be the – expected – sun. In any case it is not possible to delve further into the secrets of nature ( secreta naturae ) highlighted by this picture without recourse to hermetic knowledge.

Such knowledge certainly exists, and would have been expected from Maier’s readers. The Philosopher’s Stone is made from the combination of two substances, represented as sun and moon, sulphur and mercury, hot–dry and cold–wet, man and woman. The combination of masculine and feminine qualities is, of course, the hermaphrodite: opposed and even contradictory qualities in one body. The emblematic image also suggests the ‘extraction’ of soul from the body in death, as well as its resurrection to a new life (the lifted head). Drawing on the thirteenth-century doctor St Albert the Great, the historian of alchemy Lawrence M. Principe finds this imagery ‘quite sensible’:

Unlike with animals whose procreation produces offspring while leaving the parents intact, the combination of two material substances causes them to unite in a new, third substance with a new identity, losing their own independent identities in the process.12 

Albert laments, according to Principe, ‘the fact that “proper terms” donot exist for talking specifically about the production of material substances (particularly minerals), which is why, he [Albert] explains, authors find it necessary to discuss them using analogies’.13  However, though well-defined terms certainly are of major importance for the advance of medicine and chemistry, that may not be Maier’s goal. Augustine’s report in Confessions, I.8 of how he learned language by naming objects is plausible, and was probably uncontested in the seventeenth century. It is, Wittgenstein adds in his Philosophical Investigations, ‘As if what we did next were given with the mere act of naming. As if there were only one thing called “talking about a thing”. Whereas in fact we do the most various things with our sentences’.14  But while the very idea of proper terms suggests a mechanical, ‘outer’ model of the human and her ‘lived world’ (what Husserl terms Lebenswelt ), the dogma of the Roman Church and Reformed Orthodoxy are dependent on a system of ideal ‘things’ naturally tied to unchanging and unambiguous words. Still the ruling episteme is based on similarity, opening as we have seen for unending semiosis. Maier may use a coded language, but even to the initiated it could not be unambiguous.

Therefore, whether by intention or not, Maier is exploiting a contradiction in the signifying practice of his time. Emphasizing the need for active interpretation on the part of the reader, the emblem genre gives freewheeling interpretation a specific direction. While the reading of signatures in the Scriptures, the Book of Nature, and elsewhere, was understood as a passive registration of a given truth, the emblem ostentatiously includes the interpreter and her world. The pictura concretizes the proposition, and the subscriptio dematerializes its reference making it apply to everything and nothing in particular. The Secret is as much concealed as it is revealed, but it is first and foremost made dependent on the reader. The quest is thus transposed from the outer to the inner world, from author, authority, and given reality to the reader. Truth is redefined from content to ‘fleeing’ process. Atalanta fugiens is not a recipe for making gold; what matters is to partake of gold’s qualities. (This is, of course, a problematic proposition if matter and spirit correspond.)

Late Modern Collages

Gunnar Wærness (born 1971) makes use of elements from that same long tradition exploited by alchemists, magicians, and humanists. Wærness works in different media and genres – books, periodicals, exhibits in art galleries and museums, and on the internet – and Bli verden combines, as does Atalanta fugiens, images of an emblematic character with texts in two languages, in this case Norwegian and English.

As with Maier the first impression is one of bewilderment. The title alludes to the Word of Creation, Fiat lux: Let there be light.15  And indeed, creation – and evolution – through language seem to be the theme. In the first place, language is mentioned early in both the two poems that make up the beginning of this lookalike ‘collection of poems’, and also in the first picture-poem. Words, personified, are first. Uncertain as to their mission, they surmise their job may be to ‘collect to a face’ [samle til et ansikt], making up a persona – an identity, that is, a self, a subject, an ‘I’.16  Thus the common-sense order of things is inverted: the ‘I’ does not invent words to express itself; words make up the ‘I’.

Language with Wærness is of two kinds: there is a ‘high’ language and a ‘low’ one. The first, hierarchic and vertical, makes simple unequivocal statements. It is a verbal, spiritual language, often rendered as English. The low language is given over to doubts and contradictions: it is horizontal, without depth and central perspective, a poetic or indeed a pictorial language. This dualism is prefigured on the cover, which is one composite picture, all in shades of grey. The rear cover makes up the left side, the book’s spine and front cover the rest. To the left, connoting the ‘familiar’ (in Kress and van Leeuwen’s shorthand), is one of the book’s two ordinary verbal poems; to the right emerges a drifting cloud (to be continued on the front page) supposedly representing the new and unknown. The poem demands to be read from left to right; to take in the whole cloud the eye scanning the front page has to go in the opposite direction. Nonetheless, the graphic representations of language (poem) and of cloud are somewhat similar. Pointing to differences and similarities, Wærness seems to consider language as a phenomenon from the point of view of visual art, and vice-versa. What are brought to evidence are the graphic character of verbal language, and the syntactic relations of pictures.

Translatability is taken to be a criterion of understanding, and thus an indication of meaning. If that is so, it should apply to the relation of verbal and pictorial languages as well as oral and written language, or Norwegian and English. With Freud’s book on the interpretation of dreams in mind, W. J. T. Mitchell writes of ‘the interpretative and representational complementarity of word and image’, and of the need to ‘translate’, as it were, ‘the image, conceived as a manifest, surface content or “material,” to the word, conceived as the latent, hidden meaning lying behind the pictorial surface’. At the same time he feels compelled to remind us that ‘there is a countertradition which conceives of interpretation as going in just the opposite direction, from a verbal surface to the “vision” that lies behind it, from the proposition to the “picture in logical space” that gives it sense, from the linear recitation of the text to the “structures” or “forms” that control its order.’17  This translation may be what is at stake in Wærness’s work.

The arbitrariness of language (in contrast to pictorial representation that is, in principle, motivated) is visualized in Bli verden on page 49 (see Figure 2)
fig. 2. Bli verden, page 49 (detail)
.18  When translated, the text reads:

here is your name
and here
but it doesn’t look like me
and here

Meanwhile, the lower part of page 10 points at abstraction and categorizing as effects of verbal language: ‘here … there are many deaths … but only one is called “death”’ (See Figure 3). Necessarily, if we are to orientate ourselves in the world, this language reduces the complexities of reality and dries up the flow of sensual and emotional experience. In reaction, the opening poem forces the high language to contradict itself (or reality, or the ‘I’), as some living thing announces ‘jeg er død’ [I am dead].19  Abstract verbal language, so useful in manipulations of the outer world and fellow humans alike, exaggerates the rational, the already-known, and at the same time presupposes unchangeable essences and truths perceived as material objects.
fig. 3. Bli verden, page 10
 On the other side there are the singularities of concrete, body language, song, dance, and small talk as a means of being together, such as ‘can you teach us to dwell’ [‘kan du lære os å bo’] on page 49. Language’s functionality is dependent on its balancing of these opposite principles.

The book falls into two parts, the first introduced by a leaf in a state of decomposition, the second, on page 23, by the ‘same’ leaf rotated so as to serve as the ‘root’ of a fresh leaf, on which is perched a young bird.20  This bird is presumably the same that is represented in the first picture-poem, and also in the very last. To the theme of creation is thus added that of life and death. The first part of the book probably culminates in an event at least resembling the fall of the Tower of Babel on page 20; the second part then starts with the creation of a new world, new wor(l)ds. The End is the Beginning. Creation has to be repeated over and over again, chaos being a prerequisite for regeneration. Opposites depend on each other like high and low, ‘have and have not’, ‘stone and bread’, you and I. Life is not a state of things, but a process.

To track Wærness’s sources would be a demanding task indeed, and probably not very productive. However, the reproduction on page 39 of the pictura from Maier’s Emblema XXXIII invites us to compare the two. I also find a comment on Maier’s picture on the previous page of Bli verden, I shall analyze the two pages together.

Page 38, the left side of the spread, is divided into an upper and a lower part by an almost indiscernible line (see Figure 4).
fig. 4. Bli verden, page 38
In contrast to the page 39, the images here are very distinct, and at the same time form striking contrasts. At top is the tripartite cloud from the book’s cover. Being at the same time three and one (or four?), and, considering the title’s allusion to the Word of Creation according to Genesis, this cloud may be taken as an allusion to the Spirit of God. What the senses take to be opposites are in reality one body, albeit a spiritual one: translated, the text reads, ‘sun and moon … relate to each other … like left hand to right hand’. At first glance the lower part depicts an indefinable, probably ruinous architectural structure with three towers, the tallest to the left, the lowest in the middle, though owing to the perspective they might well be of equal height. On closer inspection we find two tripartite, unfamiliar monuments. The monolith to the left might or might not be detached. The two (or three) others seem narrow arches or gate-like constructions with one or two elements attached, altogether making up, from left to right, one, two, and three enigmatic structures. Then there is a fourth (or third) element, a half-cleft stone, halfway protruding from the frame containing the airy cloud and solid founded stones alike. Thus the high and the low part of the picture are opposite and complementary: nature (or spirit) and culture; air and water (potentially, in the cloud) up high, and stone (and ‘historically’ fire, as the house is said to have burned) underneath. In the upper part, horizontal lines predominate; in the lower, vertical ones. Here also temporal and dynamic elements are introduced in the writing, which reads: ‘a house burns down | and is rebuilt … so many times … that we have to name it | something other than a house’. The stone protruding from the frame adds: ‘before we dare to build again’.

Apart from the propositions attributed to the cloud(s), nothing indicates that the picture represents more than a cloud. The buildings or ruins of a building resemble not so much a human dwelling as the dwelling of a god, a temple. Taken in one glance page 38 may be interpreted as a commentary to the human endeavour to materialize, eventually verbalize ‘the saying’ of an spiritual entity connected to a natural force or energy – like Yahweh figuring as a cloud in Genesis. The upper part of the picture may be seen to correspond to the lower part as reality to sign, or référance to signifiant in Saussure’s terminology. The problem highlighted will then be the ephemerality of the sign, its consumption as by fire, and the realization that this has to do with the tying up of eternal meaning with decaying signs, or conversely, ever changing meaning with unchanging words. A discrete but still central position is that of the single, ordinary-looking stone, the building-block and master-builder in one, who says ‘we […] build again’.

The next page, 39, is divided horizontally into three seemingly disparate parts (see Figure 5)
fig. 5. Bli verden, page 39
. The picture occupying the upper part combines the horizontal and vertical lines of the preceding composite picture in a circular movement. Five men drawn in Egyptian style surround an ox or cow with tied legs; with the exception of the tail and the head, which is about to be cut off, the animal is rendered as an almost perfect ellipse. Also the utterances (emanating, not from the men, but from different members of men and animal alike) form an ellipse: ‘it … is … so … hot … and … bright … here | we … do not see … the flames … before … it is … too late’. The scene appears to be one of sacrifice rather than ordinary slaughter, while the collective statement indicates that officians and the sacrificial offering actually share the same fate. Maintaining the insight from the preceding page this picture posits a combination of opposite statements. Men act as if they are able to regulate the passage linking life and death, at the same time realizing that this is vain.

The second frame is Maier’s pictura of the hermaphrodite. This is by far the most complex, as it is overlaid and invaded by three other pictures. An ‘authorial’ statement (as contrasted to the former personal ones) posits: ‘this is not a house’. If the temple or temple ruins on the preceding page were the house of god, it is now stated quite clearly that the body (or pyre?) is not the ‘house’ of the human being. The position of the left head might indicate that it (the male) is not yet dead, or is about to come (back) to life. Deprived of Maier’s commentary we have to understand the scene as a funeral pyre, even a kind of witch-burning. Absorbed in activities of the day, of rationality (‘light’) and life (‘warmth’), religious ceremonies included, humans forget their predicament until it is too late. Then daylight gives way to darkness, and warmth explodes into flames.

To the right of a moon in its first quarter, four creatures connect the funeral scene, if that is what it is, with the quite different scene at bottom right. The composition indicates a semicircular movement from the two heads over the moon to the pond or lake, a leap as it seems from fire to water performed by a human figure that could be either a man or a woman. Maier’s rendering of the moon indicates separate points in time; Wærness supplements the ambivalent funeral scene, death beneath a ‘new’ moon, with a scene of new life under a full moon. The authorial statement ‘that is a boat’, inserted in the bottom picture, would indicate that the death-birth is a means of transition – by way of fire, as it were. The human figure that actually makes the leap from fire to water is surrounded by three amphibious creatures: a salamander21  on either side is admonishing ‘hush’ into the human’s ears, while the human in turn shuts the mouth of a frog uttering ‘yes’. The rather obvious implication is not to speak of the unspeakable, in the actual case the metamorphosis. At this point it may be appropriate to recall the admonition of the previous page to call a house something other than ‘house’ before building anew. It may seem unnecessary to remind the reader that a human body is not a house, though it is quite common to think of it as a physical container for an immaterial soul. But what about the word, the name, ‘body’, or ‘man’? Could that be a fixation obstructing the regeneration of man, either individually (e.g. as it relates to sexual identity – the hermaphrodite motif again), or generally? While the hermaphrodite is a figure of humanity containing both sexes, and by implication every disposition and every possibility, the humans underneath the legs of the body on the pyre represent opposite wills: ‘I will … and I will’, they say. In themselves sexually ambiguous (the one to the left having long hair and no breasts; the other short hair and breasts), they oppose each other vicariously through the cocks they hold, made ready for a ritual fight that can only lead to injury and death for the fowls. Thus, distributed successively along the diagonal formed by the right side of Maier’s bier are the representatives of, first, confronting opposites (the figures with the cockerels), then of combined opposites (the hermaphrodite), and finally of opposites caught in the process of being transformed one into the other (the group of amphibians and a human). The way to read the lower part of page 39 is therefore up, right, and down, forming an inverted U that eventually could be filled out to make a full ellipse. This produces a negotiation of the problem articulated on the first of these two pages, and then summed up in the cock-fight. Dichotomies of page 38 are elaborated: unity and plurality, spirit and matter, sign and reference, male and female.

Taken separately the verbal contributions to the composite work give little coherent meaning:

sun and moon … relate to each other … like left hand to right hand
a house burns down
and is rebuilt
so many times … that we have to name it
something other than a house
before we dare to build again

it … is … so … hot … and … bright … here
we … do not see … the flames … before
it is … too late
hush … hush
this is not a house
I will … and I will
that is a boat

With two exceptions utterances are attributed to elements of the pictures. However, neither this, nor the use of adverbial ‘here’, nor the use of pronouns (personal: ‘we’, ‘I’, and deictic: ‘this’, ‘that’) is of much help. The contrasts of lines, shapes, lightness and (illusion of) ‘solidity’ on page 38 may speak for themselves, though a specific meaning may not impose itself; the juxtaposition of heterogeneous pictures, different in technique as well as style and motifs on page 39 seems to have come about at random. The abstract meaning inherent in words seems necessary to anchor the pictures so as to make a coherent statement or even story, but actually the words do not elucidate either single entities in the pictures, or the composite as a whole. Inversely the same goes for (elements of) the pictures in relation to the meaning of words and propositions. Words and pictures do not refer to one and the same meaning, though each calls upon the other to yield its meaning, and this frustrates every hope of a coherent, stable, and final meaning.

As a consequence the process of interpretation has to be prolonged. The dualism ruined by time (page 38) and caricatured as a cock-fight (bottom left on the following page) is substituted by an always-already-at-work metamorphosis identifying sacrifiers and sacrified, life and death, man and woman, each ‘housing’ its opposite. Form and content do not then point to stable signifiers, whether words or pictures, whether temple as god’s house, word as the material container of an immaterial meaning, or the body as the ‘house’ of a masculine or feminine identity. The general idea is outlined in the striking contrast between the simple dualism contained in the rectangular frame on page 38, and the complex and dynamic interplay of dissimilar frames on page 39. However, in the innocuous isolated stone, building block and builder (‘we’), the dynamic element is already at work in the dualist world transcending its frame (though the opposite is the case with the cock-fight on the following page). Relying on occult knowledge Maier does not hesitate to name the source of the transforming energy: ‘Omnis in igne latet lapidis vis’ [All the power of the stone lies hidden in the fire]; Wærness’s ‘salamanders’ are not so confident – ‘hush … hush’.

The Unrepresentable Everything vs Nothing Represented

Drawing on the same sources as Maier, Wærness does not refer to the hermetic doctrine of alchemy, however much their works both take part in the emblematic tradition. Maier adheres to the emblem as a genre; with Wærness the emblem as mode is generalized in the way ‘everything’ to Baudelaire’s melancholic gaze, which heralded modernity, becomes allegory.22  At the centre of each work is the interplay of word and picture, not as a means of efficiently stating a pre-established truth, but as an unending process of semiosis. It is not a question of representing things and concepts, but rather of evoking the energy, accounting for the dynamics of the ideal/spiritual as well as for the material/‘chemical’ world, while at the same time questioning this very dualism.

Early-modern scholars’ investment in alchemy may probably be taken as a token of dissatisfaction with the one-sided spirituality of church doctrine prompting a change of orientation towards the material world. The stress on unity and the possibility of transformation are strong indications of this. In religious matters during that period the margins for interpretation were narrow indeed. By contrast, the late-modern artist is confronted with an ideology of material (economic) efficiency instead, but this ideology is equally grounded in a dualist view of world and sign. Maier’s predicament and Wærness’s may be as different as their aspirations, but their projects point both to a signifying strategy that is a critique of the dominant practice of their days. This critique is consonant with a view that linguistic and pictorial signs are open to translation from one to the other, but that those translations only ever achieve non-convergent, unending approximation. This is a semiotics opened up by the emblem genre at the very starting point of modern thinking, and equally by media evolution, and is contrary to both theological and rationalistic understanding of sign and reference, based on shared dualism.

Just as God’s plan is not revealed in simple fashion in either the New or the Old Testament, but has to be conjectured by comparing the two, in the same way the Bible could be supplemented with the Book of Nature. This may have been one incentive to combine different modalities in emblems. However, the meaning of pictures and music is even more difficult to determine and stabilize than linguistic meaning. Characteristic of the emblematic tradition, and in contrast with early and late rationalisms or onto-theologies, is a certain reluctance to represent the ultimate principle. Even though mysteries have to be made known to prospective adepts,23  it is vital that secrets are kept from the eyes of the unworthy, those who take them to be matters of rational understanding, or who would understand them in crudely literal terms.

With Maier the different bodily senses show different aspects (or versions?) of the same, signs are as many roads leading to new divides and winding paths pointing to the unifying principle, which is as much an individual possibility as the origin of everything that is. Maier’s way of combining modalities may be similar to the common use in modern mass media, but intentions and effects are inverse in the two cases. The modern advertizer, educator or politician tries to communicate his or her premeditated intention, thus ordering a part of a world otherwise in meaningless flux. With his firm belief in a centred and meaningful universe the alchemist points to a process where the individual reader should get lost in diversity, dissolve, and evaporate, before being able to metamorphose and solidify into an adamantine entity, the unchanging centre of a changing world.

All this is in accord with Walter Benjamin’s view when he notes that the melancholic’s objects

turn into allegory, and that these allegories fill out and deny the void in which they are represented, just as, ultimately, the intention does not faithfully rest in the contemplation of bones, but faithlessly leaps forward to the idea of resurrection.24 

Unlike Christian orthodoxy or the secular model of our times, with Maier there is no recourse to an established intention, and the reader has to reach for a meaning unknown. The emblem, like the alchemical text, is no recipe, but a call to process oneself so as to realize one’s innate potential for perfection.

A recapitulation of the dialectics of Becoming, reminiscent of Maier’s mysticism and Benjamin’s view of allegory, is found on Bli verden page 46 (see Figure 6)
fig. 6. Bli verden, page 46
. When translated, the text reads:

(the city seen from the air)
the night is what we glimpse between the days
the days spread out over one single long night
the days are flowers that grow in the night’s earth
the days become one word
the night [becomes] one year

Days are flowers, growing from earth; this earth is night, commonly associated with dreams or death; day is a word, hiding night. That is, day and night form a pair, inseparable; yet Aristotelian logic requires one (and one only) to be present at any one time. A possible interpretation would be that the meaning bound up in words covers up reality’s meaningless, though fertile soil. The word’s very stability makes one forget time and change (the ‘year’).

To conclude: in early modernity, when the hegemonic discourse was still theological, the senses threatened to divert the soul from the one Truth, and hence from salvation; in the multimodal texts of late modernity several senses are regularly invoked only to be subjected to a single premeditated understanding or intended effect. In contrast, Maier and Wærness both insist on complexity rather than simplicity, referring the reader not to substantial entities but to the corporeal basis of the processes dissolving and organizing meaning and identity. In both instances, linguistic and visual signs are seen as prerequisites for human identity. Truth is not in a fixed relation to an outside object, material or ideal, but a force calling individuals to invent themselves, ‘collect to a face’, in Wærness's phrasing.

The wrangling between pragmatic and artistic uses of language continues to this day. Different use, same language; not two worlds, but one – as spirit and matter were interchangeable for Maier, and man and world for Wærness. Moreover, the hegemonic use of referential language does something to us as human beings, whether theologically, politically, or economically motivated. In contrast, the texts of Wærness and Maier are without referent in linguistic sense. Their texts disclose no-thing, but as they do so they also disclose the nothing that has to be kept invisible in texts constructed for pragmatic reading.


1 Gaston Bachelard, L’Air et les songes: Essai sur l’imagination du mouvement (Paris: José Corti, 1943), p. 8.

2 Music, or specific musical genres, have been considered similarly, especially in Islam.

3 By contrast, Viktor Shklovsky’s famous essay ‘Art as Device’ (1916) argues against art as imagistic and art as economy of thought. By ‘enstranging’ objects and complicated form, the device of art makes perception long and ‘laborious’. Shklovsky’s essay is reprinted with the title ‘Art as Technique’, in Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, trans. by Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), pp. 3–24.

4 W. J. T. Mitchell, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 26.

5 Michael Maier, Atalanta fugiens: Hoc est, emblemata nova de secretis naturae chymica (Oppenheim, 1617), ; Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, Trekways of the Wind, trans. by Ralph Salisbury, Lars Nordström, and Harald Gaski (Guovdageaidnu: DAT, 1994). The (material) resources are also the same, except Maier does not use colour – a question of economy more than technology. For discussion of Valkeapää’s multimodal artwork, see Bjarne Markussen, ‘Law and Multimodal Aesthetics: Nils-Aslak Valkeapää’s Trekways of the Wind’, in this issue.

6 Gunnar Wærness, Bli verden (Oslo: Forlaget Oktober, 2007). The multimodality of this work is just one particular instance, in book form, of how Wærness’s œuvre spreads out in different media – another feature linking early and late modernity.

7 Bachelard, L’Air et les songes, p. 8.

8 Maier, Atalanta fugiens, Emblema I.

9 Clay Holden, transcription of London, British Library, MS Sloane 3645 (English translation of Michael Maier, Atalanta fugiens, Emblems 1–10), available through The Alchemy Website on Levity, at [accessed 20 November 2013]. The asterisk in the quotation above indicates the location of a marginal note in the Sloane manuscript, translated from a note in the printed text, and transcribed by Holden as follows: ‘Lully ibid: “The wind carries him in his belly”; That is, sulphur is carried by Argent Vive; & Ch. 47: “The Stone is Fire carried in the Belly of Air”.’

10 Quotation from Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama [1928] (London: New Left Books, 1977), p. 175.

11 Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance (London: Faber & Faber, 1968), p. 9.

12 Lawrence M. Principe, The Secrets of Alchemy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), p. 78.

13 Principe,The Secrets of Alchemy, p. 79.

14 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. by G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), p. 11.

15 Editor’s note: As the title Bli verden defies accurate and comprehensible translation into English, it is given in the original throughout this issue of the Journal. However, it is appropriate to attempt an explanation of its meaning. ‘Bli verden’ echoes the creation of the world in Genesis chapter one. In Norwegian the command ‘Let there be light’ or ‘Fiat lux’ is rendered ‘Det bli lys’. ‘Bli verden’, whatever else it may do, thus calls to mind the totality of God’s acts of creation during the first six days. The title certainly reminds many Norwegian speakers of Genesis chapter one, but far from all. In a conversation with the editor on 5 November 2013, Wærness said that, while this title was not a direct reference, bringing scriptural assumptions into his work, one was right to ‘hear the first chapter of the Book of Genesis in the background’. A literal but awkward English rendering might be ‘Let there be world’, but because ‘verden’ has in many contexts to be translated as ‘the world’ rather than simply ‘world’, the meaning would be very slippery. ‘Let the world be’ is another possible translation, but is equally infelicitous because it invites the meaning ‘Leave the world alone’, while ‘Let the world come into existence’ is far too ponderous. Wærness himself reports that when attempting an English translation of the whole work – a project which has not yet come to fruition – he could not decide on an adequate title, and so jokingly referred to the proposed translation as ‘Become the Thing’. His literary agents, Aschehoug Agency, Oslo, have in the past used the title ‘Let There be World’ in their English-language promotion of the work.

16 This phrase appears in the poem on the back cover of Bli verden.

17 Mitchell, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology, p. 45.

18 Editor’s note: This issue of the Journal has adopted the artist’s own sequential system of numbering for the individual pages, ignoring the cover and its reverse, front and back. Certain parts of the work are arguably better described in terms of ‘openings’ of pairs of facing pages, but these are a minority.

19 Wærness, Bli verden, p. 5, l. 7. It is possible, though trivial, to resolve the paradox: ‘I am [living, but not feeling fully alive, thus] dead’.

20 Alternatively the book could be said to start at the rear page.

21 As these two differ from the third that is obviously a frog, it would be tempting to take them for salamanders, which already Aristotle believed were created from flames, just as frogs were from moisture. The depicted amphibians have no tail, though.

22 Charles Baudelaire, ‘Le cygne’ [1860], in Œuvres complètes, ed. by Y.-G. Le Dantec and C. Pichois, (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1963), l. 31, p. 82.

23 ‘The fact that the sublime revelations were not easily accessible’, writes Edgar Wind, paraphrasing Pico della Mirandola, ‘seemed to heighten their authority. And yet, if their authority was to be felt, it was not sufficient to keep the mysteries hidden; they must also be known to exist’: Wind, Pagan Mysteries, p. 11.

24 Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, pp. 232–33.



Citing this article:
Lombnæs, Andreas. “Texts Disclosing Nothing: Michael Maier, Atalanta fugiens (1617), and Gunnar Wærness, Bli verden (2007).” Journal of Illustration Studies (December 2013). 24 Apr 2017. <>