“And we / …are only / Histories told
in stone, and, once told, lost…
Conrad Aiken, Preludes For Memnon, XXII
Of the traditional four elements, the one I feel most connected to is earth. I’m a mixture of fire and earth, a firestone perhaps, but it’s the earth towards which I consciously tilt, the stone in the earth, the earth as stone, earthstone. The common stuff of the earth, as it is of the universe at large, stone, with a hundred names from granite to quartz, nestles down contentedly: by rivers, in lakes, alongside seas, asleep in fields, a-spin in space. As I wrote once in a poem, “Only the trees have more names.”
Stone calms me, reassures me, makes me feel at home. It’s my security blanket and my comfort food. Like my father and his father, I was born under Belfast’s Black Mountain, and think of my father as stone: smooth, dark, eternal. When I travel, I invariably bring home a stony remnant of the ground on which I’ve trod. When I’m frightened, I finger stone like a personal rosary. Few sights delight me quite as much as a big rock — waterwashed, sundried, windblown — flecked with the scars of life.
For as long as I can
remember, we’ve been
and keepers of rock.
My parents and sister, whatever their unique elemental composition, revere stone as I do: Donegal or Connemara, in which large stones abound, would be our collective idea of heaven. For as long as I can remember, we’ve been gatherers, holders and keepers of rock. Not surprisingly then when I first saw a stone and wood sculpture in the Hamilton Public Library at the Canadian Christian Festival IV, June 23-26, 1994, I was predisposed to like it. The sculptor was Edward Gibney from Saskatoon, and the sculpture, wood intersecting stone, was called “Nature Administered.”
By anthropomorphism or animism, it has never been difficult for me to think of stone as a living being. In an unlit corner of my psyche, I think I associate it with wholeness, completeness, steadfastness, perhaps even immortality, although less gloriously its “shadow,” and mine too, might also be associated with hardness, brittleness, stubbornness, and aloofness. I internalize stone to the extent when I feel someone is chipping away at my wholeness I think they are “chipping at my stone.” When the photographer Dan Pilling took my picture for a magazine — the one I like best and use most often — he placed me in front of stone. So, again, it is no surprise that I placed Gibney among the stone poets (a Jeffers) and the stone sculptors (a Brancusi) and, given my history for veneration, placed his stone among those I would want to keep.
Stone, however, is more than a private fetish. For all of us it announces our birth (birthstone), it joins us in friendship and marriage (rings), it records our passing (gravestones). Stone, like Kierkegaard’s words on critical occasions, speaks to us at the turning points in our lives; it marks our comings and goings; it defines and limits our being. On stone we’ve written our oldest messages. By stone we’ve committed our earliest killings. With stone we’ve built our most enduring monuments. From our earliest times, as person and civilization, we’ve grown up with rocks.
In looking at Gibney’s split stone intersected by a highway of wood, I felt I was looking at the world in miniature: the worldwide administration of nature brought to life in a single sculpture; the re-enactment of the Faust myth in material form. I was looking at the human penchant for taming and mastering that which is Other, the conversion of all forms of Being into forms convenient for and conducive to the human form of being. A hush descended upon me. I thought to myself: Does this man know what he has done? He has summed up 40 volumes of Heidegger in a single image. For wasn’t it Heidegger’s life theme that human beings would not let the Being of the world, and the beings within the world, be?
on critical occasions,
speaks to us at the
turning points in our
Here, in this sculpture, the wood not only intrudes upon the stone’s space, but circumscribes it; the planed and riveted wood “domesticates” the “wild” stone despite Zbigniew Herbert’s disclaimer:
— Pebbles cannot be tamed
to the end they will look at us
with a calm and very clear eye
The organized wood rips apart the natural stone, drives through it, undergirds it and canopies it; Gibney runs a highway through a mountain. The stone is a bound being whose horizons have been curtailed by another being.
Am I witnessing, I
Am I witnessing, I thought, the crucifixion of stone? Even the stones are no longer free; they too are manhandled. They are blasted out of mountains, quarried for profit, split for suburbia; they are gouged and gored like everything else under the human sun; they are made into art. And reading the sculpture analogically, wasn’t the stone the earth, and the violation of its being, what we have done to the earth? We will not let the Being in beings be. Our actions give the lie to Vasko Popa’s “dream of the quartz pebble”:
Here is the pebble
Stubborn it has stayed in itself
Not in heaven nor on earth_
It obeys itself
Amongst the worlds a world
In Gibney’s chaperoned and corralled stone, the pebble obeys the human hand and the intrusive wood, its world a stringed satellite of the master puppeteer.
With such Heideggerian thoughts I pondered Gibney’s sculpture. But some weeks later, when I had coffee with the artist — who, at the time, was a stonecutter in Burlington — I was struck by how dramatically his vision of his work differed from mine. In Gibney’s mind, he was taking two things, two primal materials — wood and stone — and bringing them into harmony. Where I saw discord and violence, he saw interrelationship and harmony. I wanted to accept his words, in part, but I also remembered D.H. Lawrence’s admonition: Trust the tale, not the teller; or, if you like, trust the sculpture, not the sculptor.
In “Nature Administered,” Gibney had made a brilliant idea manifest, the world as split up, broken up stone transgressed upon by manufactured wood; he had conceptualized in stone and dreamt in stone; he had clothed the stone and administered its nature. His transformation of a small piece of the earth’s body made visible the transforming impulse underlying a great deal of larger human construction: we make things, use them, give them our scent and stain; that’s part of who we are, part of our aggressive and sometimes frightened being. But how can we be ourselves and simultaneously let other forms of Being be themselves? Isn’t that the Heideggerian question?
With technology and the arts, with technology as the matriarch and architecture of the arts, we remake the earth into a more hospitable dwelling-place than it would otherwise be. Technology is not anti-human, or alien to the human; it is the human. It’s the projective mind and body art of the human being, an externalization and extension of our physical and psychical being, what McLuhan calls the process of “outering.” If we go back to the Greeks, we remember that Techne, from which we derive our world technology, meant craft or skill or art. Techne was what human beings did in order to be human, as natural to human beings as damns to beavers, nests to birds, or quills to porcupines.
Technology is not
anti-human, or alien
to the human.
Technology is of course much more than a grandly applied art now, more than applied human energy for a practical and artistic purpose, even more than the house in which we live. It’s a process, a programme, a worldview, a way of life, a dialectic in which what we once made now remakes us. Heidegger saw technology’s pantheism with a very clear eye. He believed that technology must be managed precisely because it manages, controlled precisely because it controls everything around it. Technology must know its time and place or it will swallow all times and all places into itself. The Nietzschean will-to-power, which in our time is a technologizing will-to-power, must find its limits or destroy all limits.
Heidegger wanted a seasonal technology, a hands-on technology that would not tick like a clock but beat like a great bird, knowing when to glide and when to flap its wings, when to trust the air pockets and when to fight against them — a technology by human mood and disposition as well as human need and purpose, a freer technology, more convivial, less fettered and hence less fettering. He too, like Gibney, wanted harmony between wood and stone, the human and the non-human, the given and the made. But is such harmony possible?
We and the Other,
the human form of
being and all other
forms of being, might
be, then, co-
inheritors and co-
creators of ongoing
Psychologically, and materially, we dam and dike; we fence and fracture. We see ourselves as animals under siege, so we lay siege. We build bulwarks against the dark because we’re afraid of the dark. We drive stakes through stone lest it roll beyond our ken. What we can’t nail down we rip open. We are control freaks, and technological art — and I mean “technological art” literally since most art, with the possible exception of song and dance, is done with an instrument whether a chisel, a computer, a paint brush or a pen — is our chief means of control.
To dream a little, however. Suppose we lived by another image, a different code in which our technological nature co-existed amicably with other forms of nature. Suppose, metaphorically, lions and labs could sit down together, and wood and stone could let each other occupy individual space without intrusion. We and the other, the human form of being and all other forms of being, might be, then, co-inheritors and co-creators of ongoing Creation. Many of Gibney’s own works emblematically point to this direction. He does not merely carve stone, he assembles stone environments, families of stones with differing textures — some polished and reshaped, others left in their natural states. He often, in the tradition of a Noguchi sculpture, achieves a just balance between the “given” and the “made,” thus honouring the human hand’s transformative power and what is given to the hand to transform.
Such balance is rare. As a species, we tend to be off-balanced and self-absorbed, off-balanced because we are self-absorbed. We are not in harmony within ourselves, so we are not in harmony with what is outside ourselves. We do not know when to administer nature and when to leave it alone. We have not yet acquired the humility to accept that we are a being among beings; squatters, not homeowners, on the earth.
We forget that we borrow breath and give it back, borrow life and give it back, borrow our fellow-beings and give them back, and in our forgetfulness often live unaware of a large truth: the stones were here before us and will be here after us. Their veins will tell our stories.
- This article originally appeared in Grail: An Ecumenical Journal, volume 13, issue 1, March 1997.