Monthly Archives: March 2013

Greek vase

THE TITANS were always there, of course, but we were the bosses. Our job was to keep them in their place, which involved all sorts of battles, contests, schemes, feuds and the like. In the end we always won. After all, we were the gods, and it was our job to win. There were many ‘final battles’ and so on, all over the place. Each of them resulted, after skirting the edges of doom, in our victory. But the victories were also losses, there was always something truncated, there were always the dead to be mourned, and the battles also always signified, somehow, the passing of the age.

The Titans were big guys. I suppose that’s why we called them Titans. They acted big, they thought big. It was, of course, they who built all the great stone walls, raised the megaliths and so on. We were pretty big, too. We were big enough to beat them. We used thunderbolts and stuff like that. And courage, skill and treachery. The usual for a war. We liked to do tough stuff like riding chariots and wrestling—after all, we modeled ourselves on Earthly kings. Or was it the other way around? Whatever.

There was one particular Titan whom we called Iapetus. He was fond of finding things out. He was a weaponer, and many other things beside. For a while it was my task to counter his mischief. I first met him on a battle ground. He wasn’t much of a swordsman. Cut slash stab, and it should have been over. But it wasn’t. When I thrust forward, there was a jarring clang as though I’d hit a stone. It completely blunted the point of my sword, too. In the furore he got away. Turned out he’d invented iron, and made iron breastplates which were harder than bronze.

I caught up with him again years later. I was on a quest for better weapons and had been referred to a smithy that was built into the bottom of a cliff where a mountain reared up out of a forest. It was an isolated spot but it had all the necessities of a forge: the mine, which delved into the cliff, the wood, and even a good bed of clay for all the things clay is good for.

Journeying through the forest, I came upon a place of desolation. The silence of birds lay everywhere. The trees were felled as far as the eye could see. Ahead of me the mountain reared up like a raised fist.

A great smoke came from the smithy in a cave at the cliff base. The smell of burning pervaded everything. The cave was lit from inside by the fire of the forge, and by its red and changing light I could see a powerful bear pounding at the anvil with a great hammer. The bear sniffed and looked at me, and when his eyes met mine I knew it was him, for though his form was that of a bear, the eyes were those of the very Titan who I had met in the field. It was he who had nicked my ear in that battle, before he had vanished into the churned up dust.

I at once became a lion, and with a great roar I sprang upon the enemy. A mere bear was nothing to me. I had torn rhinoceros apart with my teeth and nails. The bear smiled and changed himself into a flock of sparrows, which flew through and around my attack. Each bird had his eyes. I became an eagle, and rent his flock, catching them one by one in my claws. But each bird dissolved into a swarm of lice which flowed through my talons. I became a toad, and lapped them up with my sticky tongue, when suddenly there he was again, the great bear, preparing to gulp the toad. I saw that he was wounded, though lightly. At once I changed back into my warrior form, and attacked him with new strength.

He became a roc or some such bird, really big, and flew up and up over the mountain. I pursued in the form of a warrior in a winged chariot drawn by swans. I rained arrows at his giant form. I flung javelins and darts at him. As a stone he plunged into the sea. As a cormorant I followed him, ready to take him in my craw.

This chasing and shape-changing went on for quite a while. We were both wounded and exhausted. Then, in the form of a yellow dog, he ran into a settlement of people. There he changed one last time. But this time his change itself changed. He became a thought, an idea, a practice in the minds of the men and women. I could sense him everywhere, but he was nowhere.

I galloped after him on a tall horse with a lance slung on my arm. People scattered. A yellow dog came from a doorway yelping and scurrying and looking over his shoulder as he fled. I ran him through, and he died on the lance. Well, that put an end to the battle. I rode home with the dog on the end of the shaft like a totem or pennant. I thought the eyes were Iapetus’, though it was hard to tell because they were dead.

That was my mistake. If I’d known where he had gone, I would have killed everyone there, all the animals, everything, and sown salt in their fields, too. Of course, I was hailed as a hero, which was nothing new for me, and forgot all about him. But the village did not stay the same. Its people became possessed with gain and size. They seemed to acquire an ingenuity which they devoted to this. They became a city, a kingdom, an empire.

From then, things just got worse, here, there and wherever, Iapetus set his mark. Of course, we sent our barbarian armies to pull them down, made diseases and plagues, blighted their crops and turned their fields to deserts. But wherever we pursued him, Iapetus sprang up in a hundred or a thousand other forms.

Still, he was pretty easy to spot. Wherever things got too big, wherever men overreached themselves, wherever ingenuity was used in the service of more and quicker, there he was. A sort of big tough cleverness. Which, of course, made him hard to fight.

When they tell you that the gods beat the Titans, and bound them like that one on the rock and so on, it’s all true but it’s all a lie too. Because, well, because I didn’t kill everyone in that village. Because I was looking for a thing, and Iapetus was so clever that he had become what I could not see.

Naturally, the war’s gone on ever since, and, frankly, at the moment we’re doing pretty badly. They won’t win, of course, because it’s, well, it’s basically impossible. If they really defeated us they’d defeat themselves too and pull the whole thing down, because we are them.

A wooden and gilded statue of the Buddha (bodhisattva) from the Chinese Song Dynasty (960-1279)This I have heard: A monk who had a facility with tools came to the Upaya monastery where the master woodcarver named Wu worked at his trade. The monk approached the carver and requested that he be admitted as an apprentice. The master carver took him to the woodshed and showed him all the blocks of wood that he regarded as good for carving, and told him exactly why each had been selected. Then he sent the monk off to the forest to find a block of wood that would be suitable for carving a life-size figure.

After a time, the monk returned with a block. The master rejected it at once, saying: “The tree did not give it willingly. Spend a month or two here helping me to carve these roof-beams, then go back and look a second time.”

Again the monk ventured into the forest, and, after a time, returned with a block. When he placed the block in front of the master carver, the master knocked on the block and called out: “Are you in there?” at which a stream of insects exited from a knot-hole. Again, after a time, the monk returned into the forest.

The third block was too dense and knotty, the fourth too unyielding, and so on. The master accepted the twelfth block, and set the monk to work copying an ancient statue that stood in a side-chapel.

When the life-size carving was complete, the master looked it over. “You stopped too soon. You did not go deep enough. You must go deeper. Make it a little smaller, but use the same wood,” he said, and returned to his work.

The apprentice soon found that it is no easy matter to decrease the size of a cross-legged seated figure while retaining the wood. The new figure had to be quarter-size or less, seated where the rejected form’s belly was. The monk offered it to the master with trepidation. Would it be too small, or again wrong in some way? The master rejected it at once, with the same advice—cut deeper, go smaller.

Each carving became more sophisticated as it got smaller. After a few more rejections the apprentice offered an exquisite figure the size of his thumb. It too was turned away. The next few needed a glass to see. Eventually, the apprentice offered an empty tray. The master carver looked at it carefully. “You stopped too soon,” he said, “you did not go deep enough. You must go deeper.” The monk prostrated himself.

After some years he too became known as Master Wu, and his successors also, which complicates history by giving the impression that Wu lived two hundred years, which, in a sense, he did.


WHEN CARLO Ferranti was nineteen he graduated from his apprenticeship early because of his unusual skill. He was a good-looking young man and possibly as a consequence was arrogant and vain, both about his skills and about his charms. His graduation piece was a gentleman’s ring decorated on the outside with rubies cunningly set like roses. When the bezel was lifted by means of a hinge, it revealed a skeleton in repose in a coffin. On the inside of the ring were the letters MEMENTO MORI carved and enamelled black. The ring was well made, but not such that it could have served as a masterpiece.

He was popular with the young women of the city, and with their fathers, because of his glib tongue, his looks, the rumours of his skill and the seeming certainty of his future success. Released from his indenture he had, of course, no shortage of offers from prospective employers and lovers. But being clever and vain he wanted more than that and so scorned the women and set off on a journey to find his fortune.

He worked from place to place, and because his reputation had not preceded him, was thought an adequate worker and no more. Young Carlo soon grew disgruntled. Thinking himself already possessed of the whole range of technique common among goldsmiths, he sought after yet more secrets which he supposed the craft and its guilds hid from him.

Then, arriving in a new city, he fell in with Alchemists and puffers and followers of Thrice-great Hermes, and of the Rosy Cross and the Cabala. Here he thought his success and distinction might lie, for his facility with technique should soon yield him gold from lead at the least, or possibly immortality or great wisdom.

He picked up a text loaned to him by a workshop master with whom he had been drinking, and found himself in a maze. This world, even more than his, was peopled by fabulous beasts and beings, whose couplings, separations, deaths, putrefactions, unions, sublimations and so on in no way echoed the experience of his hands. Years passed, while Carlo methodically trudged through the labyrinth of texts, building in the process texts of his own, as he tried to make at least the semblance of sense of them. We still read Ferranti’s De Aurum et Argentum with some respect, at least for his sense of method, which, some claim, foreshadows the most powerful method of all, that of Science. Carlo learned from some of the texts, from trial and error, hints and the like to make a wand for conjuring angels. At least, he thought they were angels. The wand was cleverly fashioned from gold, silver, bronze, wood and crystal. Carlo fancied that no previous puffer had his smithing skills, and that he, if anyone, would perform the conjuration correctly. Perhaps he was right. He worked at it doggedly, and with the attention that he brought to bench work.

When the angels arrived, they were angels like him—facile, impatient and cunning as well as skillful and beautiful.

“What do you want from us?” an angel asked him.

Carlo was dumbfounded, for he had never really believed that he would indeed conjure a wish-granting being. What was his heart’s desire?

“A long life and wisdom,” he said at last, following the example of Solomon.

“Pah!” said the angel, “You already have those in abundance, and in your ignorance neglect to make use of them. You wouldn’t know wisdom if it were pissing on your shoes.”

“Tell me, then what I should require of you.”

“You should require nothing of us.”

“Then give me consummate skill in my craft. Make me a prince of goldsmiths.”

“That too you have, and have squandered. Why should we grant it again?”

“Because I command it of you, by the power of my wand.”

The angel laughed. He took the wand from Carlo’s hand. “Your wand, whilst well made, has not in it the complexity of a single blade of grass, nor the intricacy of even a fruit‑fly’s wing. How could it command us in any way? It is merely a beacon, and the curious among us are drawn to investigate its sputtering light.”

Then Carlo asked for something in which he had never before shown a real interest. Moved perhaps by the angel’s presence, before he could really think he blurted out: “Then, Lord, show me that light which is steady, and which is a real beacon to those who seek the way.”

The angel became still. “That is easier done than said,” he said. “The light is everywhere around you. You have but to open your eyes.”

“The light that I see flickers and changes. It is not a constant beacon.”

“Then you have not looked aright. That is no fault of ours. All your wishes are granted, and without asking,” the angel said, and passed in a flurry of wings, from Carlo’s sight, taking the wand with him.

After that Carlo abandoned the arcane arts in favour of the practical ones. He returned to his home town and set up the Ferranti workshop which still runs today. He married the daughter of a wealthy trader, and had many children and grandchildren. He took especial pains in the preservation of his craft, and trained many apprentices. He wrote two workshop manuals, of which his On Teaching the Smithing Arts has been lost. The other, simply titled De Ars is a classic of technical expertise. Many examples of his work endure in museums world-wide.

But nothing much is known of Carlo’s later life. He never wrote an autobiography, aside from his brief account of the conversation he had with an angel. He was not noted by Vasari or Cellini. The few references we find call him “humble,” “saintly” or just “Carlo the Good”. If you find a piece of jewellery of excellent workmanship, hallmarked with the figure of a winged angel holding up a rod or wand, then it is probably from the Ferranti workshop. If it is very old, it could possibly be from Carlo’s own hand, though don’t celebrate until you’ve had it assessed—the world abounds with cunning forgeries.

This is a picture of the object that got me interested in South African stone age archaeology.

Side a

Side a

It wasn’t the object itself that got me excited, but a description of it by archaeologist Duncan Miller.  His picture was tinged with awe because he is a technical-minded person with a keen understanding of stones and their properties. In addition to his archaeological interests, Duncan is a gemmologist and lapidary.

The hand axe in the picture is estimated to be about 800k years old. It was found in a sinkhole at Kathu Pan, and has been dated by association with tooth-plates of an extinct species of elephant. It is arguably the most symmetrical and perfectly-worked hand axe anywhere.

It is thus the oldest artifact which is indisputably aesthetic – worked for beauty and symmetry, perfectly oriented, and worked considerably beyond the functional requirements of the hand-axe, which could have been achieved with half or fewer blows.

The technology which produced it is known as the Acheulian, and the artifacts are thought to be made by Homo ergaster (Homo Erectus in Africa), a diverse grouping of early humans commonly imagined as small-brained, small-jawed and robustly built, with heavy eyebrow ridges.

The knapping of Acheulian bifaces is notoriously difficult, requiring great strength and precision to be maintained over a large number of sequenced procedures. Hand-axes are extremely common in the region where this one comes from, occurring in the billions at nearby Kathu Townlands, but no other axe yet discovered is as finely made. This one eschews the more common ‘sinuous edge’, orienting the edge almost perfectly along one of the bands. It has exploited the banding in the stone to give the scalloped effect.

It is a show-off piece, a masterpiece, a demonstration of the scope of its own technology, of subtlety and control of technique.

Speculation about what was going on there is all but useless. There are prolific beds of banded ironstone nearby. Higher layers in the site’s stratigraphy produced evidence of the (at present) earliest known hafted tools. There was something going on at the site at various widely-separated times.

Here are four sonnets I wrote about it:

1   Duncan Said

Duncan said: “If we could choose one thing
to send into the universe to show
who we are, we wouldn’t have to bring
stuff like computers into it. No –
that hand-axe says it all, to me it’s
the defining human artefact.”
The thing he pictured for me was more grand
than, when I saw it, merely this.
It was inert, itself, discrete, exact,
too broad for the comfort of my hand.
The random cleave of the flake had met the mind
of the blow so cleverly as to stir the stone
into a froth of waves, yet true the line
of the edge. It caught me and I was thrown.

2   Ironstone

In banded ironstone the layers are
precisely parallel, in hues that range
from ochre to dark red. The stone is hard
and lasts. I’ve felt edges still sharp
after a million years – that’s not much change
compared to anything in our back-yard.
Each flake taken from that master-stone
cuts a scalloped curve through layered bands,
rendering in flowing lines its own
manufacture – a relief-map in the hand
that converses with the hand that made it.
Call it the pattern of the world, call it
pretty lace varnished with old silica.
It is your own face. You can’t evade it.

3   Dusty Room

The master hand-axe stands beside a box
in a dusty, ill-lit but ordered place
behind the museum.
There are no locks
on it here. The one back there in the case
is a replica.
You might hold it, if it suits
the museologists.
Here are its attributes –
practice  culture  mastery  elegance
persistence  design  skill  transmission
flow  function  grasp  pattern
truth  beauty  forethought  attention
precision  intention
– in your hand,
in a dusty place.
Yes, yes, take it,
allow your fingertips to understand.
Then you must replace it.

(can’t get this blog software to format the indents properly in the above)

4   Nobody knows

Nobody knows how old it is. No-one
knows who made it, no-one knows
what it was for. Hands like these? No-one
knows. Stories, laughter, words? Nobody knows.
The silent stone is silent. It does not
speak. Though the stone is written, it is
a text we cannot read since it does not
propose anything other than what it is.
The stone does not negate anything, it does not
argue against anything – it is silent,
it does not speak, though it does not
refuse to speak or choose to be silent.
Nobody knows how silent this stone is,
or how old, who, where, why this stone is.
For those who support “balanced” journalism and want  to get both sides, here’s the other side:

Side b

Side b

Do click on the images to see them at higher resolution. They are truly astonishing.

I read on the Guardian’s website that  Google have posted street view images of Namie, a town in the evacuated zone that was contaminated by the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The article didn’t explain whether the google cars which drove the streets of Namie snapping every few metres were drones, Google robo-cars or ordinary cars driven by daredevils who didn’t mind a bit of nuclear contamination.  Here the car has snapped itself in a convex street mirror:

car in mirror

It’s very interesting to use Google Maps to have a look around Namie. Ask Google Maps for Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan. Select street view.

The whole town is there, somewhat like the scene for a rather slow video game, and one can navigate through it, looking at this and that.  Here are some screen shots.


As you can see, the natural world is starting to reassert itself. Every crack is full of weeds. Most of the buildings still look surprisingly intact, but here and there lines are starting to go off-vertical. The street looks unnaturally clean. In fact, this Japanese town after two years of neglect looks pretty much like any street in Muizenberg.

I found an area where the gardeners were keen topiarists.


These slow-growing cypresses have retained their form after two years.

topiary2 Many other trees have not. These trees, shaped by many years of painstaking labour, are now returning to a more natural expression of their being.

topiary and car

Then there is the enigma of the cars. As you move around this totally unpopulated virtual world, there are quite a lot of them parked here and there. Have they been abandoned, or are they being used by people doing something (what?) in the forbidden zone. I also spotted a couple of cars on the road – a certain indication that someone is moving through.


When you go closer, the car is gone:

 no car

Who is it that drives about in a radioactive zone? Why?

 open garage

Everywhere there are open garages, still full of stuff, cars, bikes, all lying as they were when the disciplined Japanese citizens departed. If this were South Africa, the place would long have been looted, the remains trashed.

Time in Namie has been displaced. The town is no longer aging in a supervised, human sort of way. Unpeopled, it has been left in the care of the natural world. I hope that Google updates these images, at least once per season.

Tools occupy an area of ambiguity, ‘never given nor absolutely acquired’ (Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception). They are objects which are informed – they carry information – but the information is only realisable if the objective point of view is abandoned and the tool is subsumed into the body and the subject, emerging as the technique.

Something involving chasing that I made around the time I wrote this piece.

Something involving chasing that I made around the time I wrote this piece.

When using the chasing hammer, I use binocular magnification in order to be able to see the head of the chasing punch as it contacts the metal. This means that the tool is excluded from the visual field. I can see neither it nor my right hand which holds it. I do not bring any visual ‘attention’ to it as such ‘attention’ as I have is consumed by matters within the visual field: The orientation and angle of the punch, the progress, depth and texture of the line being chased. Nevertheless the hammer is fully ‘alive’, playing its part in the dance of the technique in the appropriate manner. I am ‘aware’ of it in the action of hammering inasmuch as I hit the punch accurately and with the required force. But I am not aware of the hammer as such, although its action and direction are modified without thought as the angle and orientation of the punch shift in its progress along the line. I hit the punch iteratively, correcting the timing, force and direction of the blow, again without thinking, to keep the line moving in the required direction. As Brepohl puts it in Theory and Practice of Goldsmithing, “With experience you will feel the almost magical effect of tools, process and intent coming together seamlessly.” (TPG:396) In this seamless synthesis, the chasing hammer is a part of the body, integrated into it through the body-image. It no more needs the oversight of the visual sense than it needs an intellectual overseer to accomplish its task. Although all of the information outlined above when  we ‘read’ the tool – the movement of the wrist, the ‘feel’ and springiness of the blow – are doubtless being ‘communicated’ to me by the tool, this is not evident in the action. Rather, the tool is as much a part of myself as my hand, the punch, or the line emerging in the metal. Merleau-Ponty, living in Paris, a city of high fashion and narrow streets, gives two examples of the way ‘objects’ are integrated into the body image: “A woman may, without any calculation, keep a safe distance between the feather in her hat and things which might break it off. She feels where the feather is, just as we feel where our hand is. If I am in the habit of driving a car, I enter a narrow opening and see that I can ‘get through’ without comparing the width of the opening with that of the wings, just as I go through a doorway without checking the width of the doorway against that of my body.” This integration is, according to Merleau-Ponty, achieved by what he calls ‘habituation’ (l’habitude) – the process of ‘getting used to’ some thing: “To get used to a hat, a car or a stick is to be transplanted into them, or conversely to incorporate them into the bulk of our own body.” (Merleau-Ponty 1970:143) In English the term habituation is somewhat problematic. L’habitude in French carries meanings of habit, usage, custom, practice and knack. The driver has become habituated to the car, the woman to the new spatiality of her body. By forming perceptive and motor habits, we incorporate things into our subject. He gives the further example of the typist, who can unfailingly hit the right keys but does not ‘know’ where the keys are located in objective space and cannot reproduce the layout of the keyboard on paper. “To know how to type, then, is not to know the place of each letter among the keys, nor even to have acquired a conditioned reflex for each one which is set in motion by the letter as it comes before our eye. If habit is neither a form of knowledge nor an involuntary action, what then is it? It is knowledge in the hands which is forthcoming only when a bodily effort is made, and cannot be formulated in detachment from that effort (Merleau-Ponty 1970:144 my emphasis). If it is the body which understands then, Merleau-Ponty prompts us, we need to revise our notion of what understanding means. To understand is not to subsume sense-data under an idea, with the body seen as an object. Rather it is ‘to experience the harmony between what we aim at and what is given, between the intention and the performance – and the body is our anchorage in a world.” Merleau-Ponty is at great pains to demonstrate this anchorage of experience in the body. The perceptual field, which includes aperceptive and kinesthetic information in its synthesis, is oriented around the body and organised through the body. He further explains that “When the typist performs the necessary movements, these movements are governed by an intention, but the intention does not posit the keys as objective locations. It is literally true that the subject who learns to type incorporates the keybank space into his bodily space.”

Thus we can see that the tool ceases to be an object, having been incorporated into the bodily space of the subject. When I use the word ‘tool’ here, I really mean something like tool-event or tool-in-use.  I shall use the term technique. In the objective world, the goldsmith uses the tool to effect the technique, but in the lived world of experienced phenomena, the tool-in-use is the technique.

What is a technique? As an instructor in the Goju-Ryu style of karate, I have frequent recourse to the term, and its use in the martial arts may shed light on its possible meaning in the Work. In karate the technique is the unit of instruction. Large numbers of individual techniques are taught and practiced repetitively. They consist of focused movements of the entire body, with or without a weapon (tool). The techniques are not conceived in isolation from their environment: They are offered as a response to the movements of others through space-time, and are directed to specific ends, aggressive or defensive. They are the ‘building-blocks’ of kata or forms – sequences of movement intended to convey the synthesis of technique in a non-repetitive but patterned form. The comparison to the goldsmith’s techniques is at once apparent: Although the narratives offered to account for technique in jewellery manuals focus mainly on the tools, the goldsmith’s techniques are focused movements of the entire body, usually with a tool. They are directed in response to the state of the metal in relation to some desired state and cannot be conceived in isolation from their environment. They are the building-blocks of the Work itself, a sequence of movements wherein technique is synthesised and expressed through the medium of the metal.

Introduction to the technique

The use of the chasing hammer is in chasing and repoussé, a set of techniques involving the body and  the body-image in interaction with tools and metals. Though the body can ‘read’ much of the meaning and possible function of hand tools, the actual use is not obvious from the tool itself – it needs the context of the Work, and of the specifics of its technique, or its analog, to be understood. An example of a tool which has lost its significance because we do not have this transmission should make this plain: At sites all over South Africa biface hand-axes can be found, often in large numbers. These stone tools, between 1.4 million and .4 million years old offer a baffling mystery because we do not know what the tools were used for. Although we can ‘read’ them with the body and find many possible uses for them empirically, we do not know the actual techniques of their use. For a technique to be grasped, then, there has to be some ‘initiation’ of the user. This initiation may take the form of a text, for example Brepohl, or an oral transmission, or it may take the form of a demonstration of the technique, which would allow the initiate to experience at first-hand the gestures and postures involved, the punches, the pitch, and the manner of holding and using them. The effect that these tools have on the metal is either explained or made plain by demonstration.

For the goldsmith, tools become techniques, but they are also objects in the world which have been designed and made in certain forms to fulfill certain functions. They too are produced by a ‘Work’. They are ‘forms which inform’, and thus they bring something to the goldsmith which is not placed in them by reflection, but which emerges in the technique.

Waiting for an eye-test while renewing my driver’s licence at the Fish Hoek civic centre, the most obvious thing to my eye was the uniformity of colour scheme. Everything was in shades of blue, blue-grey and grey, like a FaceBook or Microsoft default screen. I had nothing to read but did have a pen and paper, so I took some notes.

The doors, chairs, signage and various trims are all dark blue.

The ceiling is a very pale grey, the walls slightly darker, and the floor is tiled with mid-grey tiles joined with darker-grey grouting. The counter is surfaced with speckled beige-grey faux-granite.

The people in the room, waiting, like me, for the eye test, had for some reason chosen to wear grey and blue – there were grey-blue denims, grey cotton-knit tops, grey shorts and blue tops. The favoured shoes were grey trainers. The only exceptions were myself, in brown corduroys, and two women dressed entirely in black.

Then three men wearing different green T-shirts came in.