PRINT Summer 1987

The Adventure of the Third Essay

This is the third of a series of articles on sight. The first, “Bagpipes on the Shore,” was published in October 1986; the second, “I Like the Free World,” in February 1987.

AN UNKNOWN PARTY HAS KIDNAPPED the Duke of Holdernesse’s only son. At the desperate urgings of the boy’s headmaster, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson rush north from London to “the cold bracing atmosphere of the Peak country”—the “Hallamshire” uplands where the crime took place. After a preliminary reconnaissance of the grounds where the boy was last seen, Holmes examines “a large ordnance map of the neighbourhood.” Placing a lamp at the map’s center, “he began to smoke over it, and occasionally to point out objects of interest with the reeking amber of his pipe.” He has already deduced that the kidnapping required a bicycle. To the south of the school is

a large district of arable land, cut up into small fields, with stone walls between them. There, I admit that a bicycle is impossible. We can dismiss the idea. We turn to the country on the north. . . . a great rolling moor. . . . Here, at one side of this wilderness, is Holdernesse Hall, ten miles by road, but only six across the moor. It is a peculiarly desolate plain. . . . the plover and the curlew are the only inhabitants. . . . Surely it is here to the north that our quest must lie.

Holmes begins his analysis with the simplest of all spatial distinctions. “There,” southward, lie farms. Agriculturally cultivated, this “district of arable land” can claim to be socially cultivated as well—civilized, in comparison with the vast moor “here,” to the north, a “desolate” place surrounding Holdernesse Hall with a “wilderness.” Northward lies the track of the criminal, and northward civilization has established only a sketchy presence. It is an unformed region, dangerously open to who knows what. In the topography of this story of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s, “The Adventure of the Priory School” (1904), north is the abyss.

The plots of traditional detective stories always circle an abyss, some newly opened gap in the world’s proper order, a rift, wide or narrow, from which a crime has just emerged. Only superficially is the villain a disturbed individual, or an individual of any sort—he, or occasionally she, appears chiefly as a requirement of the plot. And though the detective heroes usually sport an array of particularizing quirks—Holmes’ cocaine, his brooding improvisations on the violin, his tobacco kept in a Persian slipper, and so on—they are ciphers too. Holmes is a principle of order, not a well-worked-out personality. His prey, the criminals, are opposite but unequal principles of disorder. Order always triumphs; the detective catches the crook. The abyss vanishes.

“The Adventure of the Priory School” relies on maps. Holmes examines one; Conan Doyle inserts another in the text, his hero’s sketch of the abyssal moor surrounding Holdernesse Hall; and the plot implies yet another, a strip of England running northward from London to the Peak country. The last of these maps projects moral values onto a patch of geography—good in the south, evil in the north, a pattern of polar opposites that guides the currents of the plot. In a traditional detective story the plot progresses from hour to hour, day to day, until the moment when the forces of order fill the abyss of disorder. Because it is a flat object, available in its entirety to the eye, a painting on canvas, or a photograph, inspires the hope that one can see in an instant a resolution of the kind to which narratives must work their way over time. Though sculptures require us to walk around them, we like to think that, having made that quick circuit, we have the object within our esthetic grasp. In his “Notes on Sculpture, Part I” (1966), Robert Morris proposed three-dimensional “gestalts” so clearly similar to shapes the viewer already knows that “one sees and immediately ‘believes’ that the pattern within one’s mind corresponds to the existential fact of the object.” Viewers didn’t even have to walk around the squares and other simple geometric objects that have come to be known as Minimalist. In the first instant of looking, all was supposed to be clear, because there were no clues to interpret. But it took time to note that Minimalist sculpture refuses to offer clues of the usual kind. And that refusal was itself a clue, one whose implications had to be checked. The checking required a close look at the object. As the ’60s went on and sculptors like Richard Artschwager and Walter De Maria began to insinuate complexity into Minimalist form, the process of examination grew more elaborate. Bluntly obvious or complicated by irony, Minimalist form also turns looking into a narrative. Vision cannot grasp a work of art all at once. The eye must travel over the surface of the work, tracking down clues to the structure that organizes the artist’s meanings. Suspense draws one forward. Will it be possible to find organizing principles, or to convince oneself that one has done so, and will this detective work, once it is complete, feel as though it was worth the trouble? In modern times, certain artists have undermined composition; some have induced its structures to collapse, reducing, say, pictorial form to a level field where clues lie scattered in patterns whose randomness permits no reassembly. Such images stymie the effort to detect order, and even paintings from earlier times, ones that do employ composition, can sometimes baffle the investigative eye. The viewer must assemble clues and test them this way and that (does Christ point only at Saint Matthew or does his gesture also include the unnamed figure who marks the picture’s central axis?). The eye’s satisfaction signals a resolution: the unknown has become the known; something lurking in the shadows of the unfamiliar has now revealed its order; an abyss in the viewer’s experience has been filled.

To return to the work for another careful look is to relive the story of figuring out how to see it, as an admirer of Conan Doyle might reread “The Adventure of the Priory School” not for the suspense of the plot—one knows its outcome—but for the pleasure of retracing it. To have a grasp of its structure is reassuring as well as pleasurable, for it strengthens one’s sense of order, and such reassurances, whether offered by stories or by art, draw us back to them time and again. The static forms, say, in a painting are so obviously different from a storyteller’s flow of events that we usually overlook the resemblance between the order that painters have traditionally established with pictorial composition and the order that narrators enforce with their plots (or, in more recent tradition, have undermined with antinarrative devices). Writers animate their stories with a pattern of vectors—not only the north and south, the ups and downs, of the geography where events take place, but the plots’ structural tensions and drives. When we read we trace that pattern, a process that can be equivalent to the interpretation of a painting’s structure—the clues left by the artist’s way of inflecting the pictorial givens of up and down, left and right, foreground and background, and of arranging forms within the imaginary space defined by these coordinates. The differences between visual and verbal images obscure this equivalence so well that the story of detecting clues to a canvas’ principles of order is usually unconscious. But art does invite us to play detective, to reconstruct the series of decisions that resulted in the image we see. Explicitly or not, critical judgment often defines a painting as the final moment of a plot that led the artist from the abyss of the empty canvas to the finished image.

To gather clues, to analyze them correctly, to reconstruct the crime and entrap the criminal—by carrying out this process, Holmes ensures that justice will be done. Though he has a decent respect for justice’s demands, his vision ranges farther and deeper than the social surface where such immediately human matters loom so large. His captures are incidental and, after all, the job of Scotland Yard’s hapless Inspector Lestrade. They occur as a side effect whenever Holmes, the gentlemanly amateur, pursues his true vocation, which is to put an elegant version of empirical analysis to work in the search for the precise nature of the disorder that has opened a chasm in the world’s proper structure.

“The Final Problem” (1893) ends high in the Swiss Alps with Holmes and the evil Professor Moriarty, the hero’s nemesis and finally his equal, grappling at the precipice of the Reichenbach Falls and plunging, it seems, to their deaths. As Holmes prepares to meet Moriarty, Dr. Watson recollects that he was watchful but

never depressed. . . . Again and again he recurred to the fact that if he could be assured that society was freed from Professor Moriarty, he would cheerfully bring his own career to a conclusion.

“I think that I may go so far as to say, Watson, that I have not lived wholly in vain,” he remarked. . . . “In over a thousand cases I am not aware that I have ever used my powers upon the wrong side. Of late I have been tempted to look into the problems furnished by Nature rather than those more superficial ones for which our artificial state of society is responsible. Your memoirs will draw to an end, Watson.”

Conan Doyle said he wrote The Return of Sherlock Holmes because the detective’s fans mourned and would not be comforted unless their hero somehow returned from the “tremendous abyss” of the Reichenbach Falls. I believe Conan Doyle could have resisted his readers’ demands if he hadn’t made himself so uneasy by erasing his leading agents of order and disorder in a single, vertiginous instant. “The Final Problem” leaves the world to wander at hazard, neither bent out of shape by Moriarty’s evil methods nor returned to its proper form by Holmes’ superior style of analysis. Only an imaginary world was at stake, but Conan Doyle, I think, couldn’t bear to let it drift into a shapeless abyss.

Each Holmes story sets the abyss in a new place. “The Adventure of the Dancing Men” (1903) locates it westward, in the New World. In “The Musgrave Ritual” (1893), Holmes must travel backward in time to find the place where order collapsed and crime resulted, but not, in this case, until two centuries later. Conan Doyle makes it easy to follow the moral geographies he sketches with his plots: it’s only a few pages into “The Adventure of the Priory School” that you realize the wild north stands opposed to the civilized south. Events will orient themselves to this pattern, which many English readers may find not only intelligible but convincing, for it fits with long-established assumptions about their island: the south offers the refinements of London and the coziness of the Home Counties, as they’re called; to the north lie England’s industrial cities, harsher weather, and, still more discomfiting to the English, those border marches where their country gives way to the un-English landscape and customs of Scotland. A Londoner, Sherlock Holmes brings order to a “peculiarly desolate plain” in northern Hallamshire by crisscrossing it with the tracks of his investigation, which turns up clues—among them the trace of a Dunlop bicycle tire, “with a patch upon the outer cover.”

As these clues interweave, they form a pattern that not only leads to the solution of a crime but draws an entire countryside back from a moral abyss and returns it to the topography of law and order. Sherlock Holmes arranges ideas in coherent patterns because he has to solve a crime—fill an abyss of evil—not for the sake of esthetic judgment. Sometimes, however, he makes such judgments along the way. In “The Adventure of the Empty House” (1903) Holmes chides Dr. Watson, his biographer, for having made “The Final Problem” such a “picturesque” account of his deadly struggle with Professor Moriarty above the Reichenbach Falls. A thinly disguised dandy, he gives plentiful signs that he is alive to the full range of esthetic possibilities. To solve a crime, in fact, he must reach beyond the charm of the picturesque to the smooth and stable resolutions that provide traditional detective stories with their equivalent to beauty. Doyle qualifies his hero for such efforts by describing him in terms routinely used to evoke the creativity of artists and the sensitivity of connoisseurs. Between cases, he is “the introspective and pallid dreamer of Baker Street.” As he plunged into the Peak country’s northern desolation, “his eyes shone, and his cheek was flushed.” He is a hunter on the track of his prey, and in “The Adventure of the Empty House” Conan Doyle compares Holmes to an animal predator—a tiger whose spring is lethal.

The plots of the Holmes stories draw maps that now and again require him to step into another role: the Victorian traveler, with his well-worn luggage and his encyclopedic knowledge of train schedules. The rhythms of the detective’s journeys, the stops and starts and lassitudes he must endure as he searches for clues, become the rhythms of analytic thought as it seeks a pattern in the criminal shadows. (Only in “The Final Problem,” which suggests that both Holmes and Moriarty ended up in the depths of the Reichenbach Falls, did Conan Doyle prevent—or seem to prevent—his hero from transforming disorder into order, darkness into light.) Following the detective’s route through the map implied by each story, we come to see how snugly every detail fits with every other. As intricately tangled as his path may be, Holmes travels a closed circuit. The certainties of 19th-century empiricism define his world, and its disorders leave signs always willing to give themselves up to empirical investigation. To close an abyss, Holmes need only follow its odd clues back to their cause. That done, the abyss vanishes. Order reappears in this empiricist’s paradise, and, by the way, Holmes solves a crime.

Holmes is a relentless field investigator attached to an intellect that Conan Doyle, in “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons” (1904), calls a “reasoning machine.” Because his reason works along lines laid down by modern empiricism, Holmes also commands our culture’s empirically based esthetics: he is a “reasoning machine” linked to a sensibility machine. Taking up his violin, he signals that sensibility has resurfaced. Touched by melancholia, Holmes once more turns into “the introspective and pallid dreamer of Baker Street.” In such moments, the detective looks like the stereotyped—or picturesque—figure of the artist. To make sure we don’t miss the point, Conan Doyle has Watson say at the start of “The Adventure of Black Peter” (1904) that “Holmes, . . . like all great artists, lived for his art’s sake.” It occurs to me that fictional detectives and the protagonists of travel books are not the only ones to traverse imaginary maps on the lookout for chances to defeat chaos with order. Artists and their audiences, or at least some of them, undertake the same quest, and they often combine the “reason-machine” and the sensibility machine in ways that remind me of Sherlock Holmes.

Untouched canvases provide a painter with emptinesses readymade and ready to hand, yet I don’t believe that they are the only abysses to which pictorial order is a reply. Order needs a challenge more specific than the primal blank of a new canvas. The history of the medium offers chasms sufficiently provocative for a painter to want to fill it, so the painter ranges over history’s past looking for such openings. Historical reasoning rendered subtle by sensibility turns up clues that lead the artist to likely possibilities—say, the overload of Cubist complexity that the artists of De Stijl discovered and then cleared up with their reductive tactics, or Surrealism’s overflow of literary imagery, which the Abstract Expressionists banished by rigorously focusing their energy on painterly gesture. Painters address not the crimes but the offenses against art committed by their forebears—chasms in painting’s terrain opened up by the parental figures’ supposed failures. Piet Mondrian, not Pablo Picasso, saw Analytical Cubism as too fussy, a tangle of form blocking a view of the universal; Barnett Newman, not Matta, saw the Surrealist painting of the ’40s as too illustrational, not sufficiently pictorial to attain the purity of the sublime. Mondrian and Newman needed confidence to define a distinguished predecessor as a perpetrator of an offense; the offense was disorder. Possessing confidence, an artist, a critic, a curator—or, say, a travel writer with an opinion about ruins—can be as confident as Sherlock Holmes in pursuit of a clue to the desired sense of order, though the clue is not the trace of a crime but a nuance displayed by a work of art.

Especially when faced with the abyss of a foreign culture, the reasoning machine meshes gears with the sensibility machine to grind out confident beliefs about the esthetic qualities permeating objects, images, and places. Arriving in Yokohama around 1890, the American writer Lafcadio Hearn found that everything looked “elfish. . . small. . . little.” In his essay “My First Day in the Orient” (1892) he wrote that streets offered

a delightfully odd confusion. . . . For there are no immediately discernible laws of construction or decoration. . . . all is bewilderingly novel. . . . And finally, while you are still puzzling over the mystery of things, there will come to you like a revelation the knowledge that most of the amazing picturesqueness of these streets is simply due to the profusion of Chinese and Japanese characters in white, black, blue, or gold, decorating everything—even surfaces of doorposts and paper screens.

Like the hero of a detective story, this traveler has solved a mystery: why do Japanese streets look so picturesque? Because an overlay of ideograms renders them inherently pictorial. With the solution of this narrow mystery comes the answer to a larger problem: how can Hearn find order in what he calls the “confusion” of Far Eastern cities? How can a Westerner give this void a structure, fill it with graspable meaning? Hearn leaps into chaos just long enough to separate architectural from graphic form; he sees the ideograms through an atmosphere of intelligibility which he treats as a clue. His “confusion” becomes a “profusion” of somehow significant line and color. To say how this data signifies, he arranges it in patterns that fit a general definition of the picturesque. Hearn conquered his fear of chaos with an esthetic judgment. He made confusion disappear. He must have felt he had puzzled his way to a fact with great explanatory power—calligraphy makes Japanese streets inherently picturesque. In fact, his “clue” showed him the possibility of imposing a familiar esthetic on a foreign place. Hearn traced a closed circuit: he projected a definition onto a troubling vista (the “confusion” of Japanese streets is picturesque), then his reason and sensibility worked in tandem to convert this projection into a reassuring conclusion (the picturesque is amazingly well exemplified by Japanese streets). Abysses in our patterns of thought or esthetic feeling let us close them with maneuvers like that. Abysses opened by events sometimes do not.

There’s a difference between a terrifying image of the abyss and the abysmal horrors that sometimes overtake episodes in modern history. Real-life abysses create chasms in meaning that are beyond the powers of words or images to represent. You can’t make an image of things too horrible to imagine. When writers try they often strain language to the point where its inadequacy is bathetically obvious. In Narrative of a Voyage to Senegal (1818), J. B. Henry Savigny and Alexander Corréard write,

One must have experienced cruel situations, to imagine what a soothing charm, in the midst of misfortune, is afforded by the sublime idea of a God, the protector of the unfortunate. One consoling idea still pleased our imaginations; we presumed that the little division had sailed for the Isle of Arguin, and. . . would return to our assistance. . . . The night came, and our hopes were not yet fulfilled: the wind freshened, the sea rose considerably. What a dreadful night! . . .

This whole night we contended against death, holding fast by the ropes which were strongly fastened. Rolled by the waves from the back to the front, and from the front to the back, and sometimes precipitated into the sea, suspended between life and death, lamenting our misfortune, certain to perish, yet still struggling for a fragment of existence with the cruel element which threatened to swallow us up.

At length daylight came, and disclosed all the horrors of the scene. A great number had, in their delirium, thrown themselves into the sea. . . we calculated that, at least, a fourth part had drowned themselves in despair. . . . The deepest despondency was painted on every face; every one, now that he was come to himself, was sensible of his situation; some of us, shedding tears of despair, bitterly deplored the rigour of our fate.

During the Napoleonic Wars the English had occupied France’s colonies in West Africa. After Napoleon’s fall, the victors arranged to return these holdings to France. Savigny and Corréard were an officer and an engineer on a ship, one of four, sent in 1816 to reestablish their country’s presence in Senegal. Named The Medusa, it ran aground off the African coast and sank. Some sailed from the wreck in lifeboats. One hundred and fifty, including the authors of the Narrative, tried to escape on a raft lashed together from fragments of the battered ship. After 17 days at sea, only 15 were still alive.

A new event, for everything was an event for wretches for whom the universe was reduced to a flooring of a few toises in extent, who were the sport of the winds and waves, as they hung suspended over the abyss; an event then happened which happily diverted our attention from the horrors of our situation. All at once a white butterfly, of the species so common in France, appeared fluttering over our heads, and settled on our sail.

Reading the butterfly as the sign of a landfall, the survivors “snatched at this hope with a kind of delirium of joy.” It was their ninth day on the raft. Starving, some of the crew “devoured, with haggard eyes, this wretched prey [the butterfly], and seemed ready to dispute it with each other.” On the following day, more butterflies appeared, but no glimpse of land. Sharks continued to swarm around the raft. Several days earlier

We bent a bayonet to catch [them]. . . . A shark bit at the bayonet, and straightened it. We gave up our project. But an extreme resource was necessary to preserve our wretched existence. We tremble with horror at being obliged to mention that which we made use of! we feel our pen drop from our hand; a deathlike chill pervades our limbs; our hair stands erect on our heads!. . .

Those whom death had spared. . . fell on the dead bodies with which the raft was covered, and cut off pieces, which some instantly devoured.

Corréard and Savigny say that “almost all the officers” resisted cannibalism. Though it’s not clear if they, who belonged to the officer corps, were among the abstainers, the horror of their suffering is obvious. Their account of events convinces despite their literary style, which sounds frantic and hackneyed in the original French and melodramatic in the English translation of 1818 that I have quoted here. Pens dropping from horrified hands, hair standing on end, “tears of despair,” emotions “painted” on faces, “the cruel element” of the sea, the “sublime” this and the “terrifying” that—the book is a grab bag of Gothic mannerisms and phrases from the Romantics, already, in 1818, reduced to formulaic tags. Moralistic clichés mix with talk of “impressions”—the mechanisms of Frenchified Lockean psychology returned to English. Political commentary veers between assertions of Republican virtue, nostalgia for Napoleonic glory, and protestations of love for the restored monarchy.

In the midst of such stylistic disorder, talk of the shipwrecked as “the sport of the wind and the waves. . . suspended over the abyss” recalls the period’s most self-indulgently Romantic fiction. Yet Corréard and Savigny meant the word “abyss” to point to something real: the ocean, a chasm that threatened to draw them into its depths. Figuratively, cannibalism drew the raft’s survivors into a moral abyss. An abysmal incompetence caused the wreck of The Medusa, and the authors of the Narrative fell into an abyss of official indifference when they tried to tell their story to the appropriate ministries in Paris.

In a note appended to the main text, another member of the shipwrecked crew, known only as M. Bredif, says,

“We shall sink,” cried Mr. Espiau, let us shew courage to the very last. Let us do what we can: vive le roi! This cry a thousand times repeated rises from the bosom of the waters which are to serve us for a grave. . . . Some of us thought that this enthusiasm was madness: was it the fulness of despair which made them speak so, or was it the expression of the soul broken by misfortune? I know not, but for my part, this moment appeared to me sublime.


Towards the morning the moon having set, exhausted by distress, fatigue, and want of sleep I could not hold out any longer and fell asleep; notwithstanding the waves which were ready to swallow me up. The Alps and their picturesque scenery rose before my imagination. I enjoyed the freshness of their shades, I renewed the delicious moments which I have passed there.

This looks like a motion familiar from the outset of modern times: a turning away from disorder toward the stability of the picturesque. We’ve seen Lafcadio Hearn do it here, and in the first article of this series, “Bagpipes on the Shore,” we saw how a touristic vision can turn that stability into an inflexible rigidity—in vacation spots or in those regions of the art world where critical despotism lays down the law on the relative height of cultural monuments. Obviously, Bredif, on the verge of death by drowning, was not carrying out an esthetic maneuver, despite his invocation of alpine beauty. To interpose picturesque images between oneself and the abyss requires an act of will. The act need not be conscious, and usually is not, but it is always deliberate, always willful. Shipwrecked and battered, Bredif could no longer control his will. He dreamed or hallucinated his image of the Alps. It came to him unwilled, not as the outcome of an esthetic tactic to avoid disorder. The difference is vast and obvious, though Bredif had only the jargon of esthetics at his disposal to describe an extreme experience for which he had no other language.

The Narrative’s authors intended their book as a political act, an incitement to reform. Having appealed to a bureaucracy that ignored them, they felt they had no recourse but to appeal to the sympathies of the general public. I know it is customary to say that every work of art has a political aspect. I’m also familiar with the notion that even the most factual account of real events has an imagined component, so that a politically motivated book like Narrative of a Voyage to Senegal has a certain resemblance to a work of art. All this is true, though not useful until we make it specific. Corréard and Savigny had two carefully defined objectives: to bring a judgment against the navy and the colonial administration that had nearly killed them with its bungling, and to turn public opinion against a political establishment indifferent to their sufferings. The book’s stylistic flourishes have the sound of side effects generated by the rush to publish. The authors had no time, nor sufficient self-consciousness, to get all the standard phrases out of their heads. So their book is a torrent of mismatched clichés but deserves no censure for that. Corréard and Savigny intended the Narrative to stir up a salutory political scandal. They succeeded. In such efforts, well-worn clichés sometimes help.

Théodore Géricault read Corréard and Savigny’s book, then painted The Raft of the Medusa, 1819, which fills the manifold abyss of a historical event with compositional order of the most refined, ambitious, glorious—and fictive—kind. The Medusa affair had become a symbol of shameful disorder. Géricault’s painting tried to restore order, and it succeeded, but only in an imaginary realm. No image could change the fact of Napoleonic defeat, administrative incompetence, personal suffering, and horror.

Géricault talked to survivors, had a model of the raft built, visited the morgue. Gathering images of horror, he played the role of an empiricist. Setting to work on his painting, he elevated his empiricism to a heroic plane. The sufferers on his raft have the anatomy and postures of figures condemned to a Rubensian hell, or plague victims as rendered by a Neapolitan like Mattia Preti. As their heaped bodies sink into despair and death, the composition elevates them into a pyramid whose apex is a cluster of figures still able to stand and wave at rescuers almost invisible on the distant horizon. Compelled by hope, these figures strain forward as the pyramid formed by mast and sail leans in the opposite direction. Echoes of this compositional struggle run shuddering through the rest of the image, lifting it upward from the abyss to the pinnacle of the sublime—Romantic high style at its most ambitious. Géricault fills the abyss with transcendent order.

A recapitulation of Western painting’s heroic past, The Raft of the Medusa looks particularly modern in its fanatic insistence on order, for Géricault joins in the general feeling that modernity is an abyss in need of structure. Where he found horrible, abysmal fact, he put a reassuring fiction. The painting insists that even here, in the depths of chaos, composition is possible. Of course such order is imaginary, and even the most closely observed of his gruesome details have a fictive quality—just as Corréard’s and Savigny’s most blatantly novelistic devices have a quality of the real. The difference originates in differing intentions. Theirs were not esthetic. Géricault’s was. He refers to the actual only to make his fictions more convincing. By giving order to the disorder he found in an actual abyss, Géricault transmutes the meanings he discovered there—shameful dereliction inspires honor, incompetence provides an opportunity for heroic suffering, and so on. Géricault intended these transmutations to flow from his work of art into the world. He painted not as a reporter or a scandalmonger but to exhort his audience to struggle against the abyss of modern chaos, to order it with virtues of the most elevated and sweeping kind.

Géricault intended the grandeur, the heroic beauty, of The Raft of the Medusa to stand in the company of such qualities as spiritual courage, moral probity, and intellectual honesty—virtues all the more familiar, at least as ideals, because the most ambitious philosophers, scientists, and artists of his times had defined them in terms borrowed from the Renaissance and antiquity. Corréard and Savigny called their raft a “fatal machine”; Géricault’s painting turns it into a stately vessel laden with prestigious tradition. The flagship of Western culture sails into a future where art, philosophy, and science would cooperate in an effort to impose order, to prevent the appearance of unmanageable chasms. Commemorating a wreck, The Raft of the Medusa promises smooth sailing. Géricault would probably have acknowledged an element of fantasy in the implicit promise made by the brilliant order of his composition, yet he could have justified it. Optimism was habitual among early-19th-century artists and, especially, scientists, though I sense overwhelming fears about the future in some of the period’s most energetic intellects—even in Alexander von Humboldt, a scientific celebrity in his time. The author of Kosmos (1845), a work of visionary astronomy, Humboldt is remembered also as a founder of modern geography and an early environmentalist. On the lookout for certain clues, I see Humboldt’s scientific brilliance as a knack for hunches, and his large contemporary public read him as a travel writer. He was a scientific investigator who crisscrossed Latin America in an attempt to solve a puzzle that nagged him with the force of a private obsession: how did human culture get broken into so many separate cultures, so many incompatible fragments? Or, he wondered, is it incorrect in the first place to posit a primeval unity? Did different cultures grow from separate roots?

Though Humboldt’s questions multiply and mutate like images in a fever-dream, each of them signals his fear that time fills culture with immense chasms. Do all languages have a common origin? Could New World stone carving have developed independently of Old World sculpture? If so, how can one account for resemblances between, say, Egyptian and Aztec hieroglyphs? What, for that matter, joins a culture to its own past? Humboldt discovered in Peru a tribe that could not read hieroglyphs written by its own ancestors. In volume one of his Researches, Concerning the Institutions and Monuments of the Ancient Inhabitants of America (1814), he reports this in a baffled tone, which hides, I believe, an unquenchable fear. Failures of memory terrify Humboldt. Even the most questionable hint of a historical link—of memory preserved, if only unconsciously—reassures him.

“Why,” he asks,

should we hesitate to point out, wherever they occur, the analogies of construction in languages, of style in monuments, and of fictions in cosmogonies, although we may be unable to decide what were the secret causes of these resemblances, while no historical fact carries us back to the epocha of the communications, which existed between the inhabitants of different climates?

Ranging through Mexican uplands and Brazilian river basins, across Central America and over the Andes, Humboldt analyzed environments in hopes of finding clues to historical change: show how a landscape affects its people and, he hoped, he could explain the development of cultural differences. In accumulating evidence, he became a great geologist and founder of the science we know as ecology, but he never solved the mysteries that obsessed him. In the role of the traveler, however, he often employed the picturesque to find easy solutions to standard problems of esthetic judgment offered by landscape. Historical questions resisted analysis, but a “picturesque” cascade or the “disproportionate figures” of a pre-Columbian monument never did.

The Researches’ chapter on the Jaen de Bracamoros province of Peru includes an aside on the postman who wraps his pants around his head turban style, tucks letters into this makeshift turban, then swims for two days downriver—a reassuringly exotic image. Humboldt presents such reassurances with ease, and also with a distracted air. From an overload of data he built elaborate structures, esthetic and, especially, intellectual, but he could not persuade himself to take any of this provisional architecture as truth’s image. Over and over he signals his frustration, with phrases like “we seek in vain” for this crucial link, or “we are ignorant” of that indispensable connection. Even as he secures new scientific knowledge, he admits that he has, in a sense, lost his way: as facts come into sharper empirical focus, their meanings grow more elusive. He wants to believe that all cultures have an origin in common, but, he fears, to try to prove that hypothesis would be to run the risk of “losing ourselves in a labyrinth of conjectures.” Yet Humboldt takes the risk. He enters the labyrinth and, unable to contain his theorizing within any structure, no matter how complex, he wanders into an abyss of the forgotten and the unrecoverable.

Humboldt didn’t set himself up as a seer, yet his terrified fascination with gaps in tribal history makes an unconscious prophesy about the future of Western civilization: it will be an unbounded desert of lost meanings, crumbled significations. When he anguished over a Peruvian people’s indecipherable past, Humboldt allegorized his fears about Western culture’s ruin at the hands of modern science and technology—modern culture’s rational impulses.

By the time of the industrial revolution the fear of losing touch with one’s origins became so great that a new variation of melancholy developed in epidemic force: nostalgia or homesickness or mal du pays, or Heimwehe, as Swiss-German mercenaries called this languishing affliction when it attacked them in postings far from their Alpine haunts. Nostalgia gave the bagpipes a proverbial command over the emotions of Scots driven from the Highlands by economic and political hardship. Homesickness was and is a painful affliction, though some travelers cultivate it. First comes the pleasure of escaping one’s usual surroundings, then the exotic palls, and one longs for home in the knowledge that one’s return will requite the longing. Approaching England after two irritable years on the Continent, Tobias Smollett said, “You cannot imagine what pleasure I feel while I survey the white cliffs of Dover,” though he knew that anyone likely to be reading his Travels through France and Italy (1766) could imagine precisely what he felt.

Like the travelers who feel it, homesickness can follow a strict itinerary, no less now than in the era of the Grand Tour. To elaborate patterns of exciting departure, nostalgic absence, and grateful return, we don’t even need to leave home. With just a shift in sensibility—a switch in style, attitude, or ideology—one can have the feel of profound change in an instant; an instant later, one can return home to the old map, which is just as orderly as ever, though its landmarks read differently now. A moment ago, vision may have undertaken a risk-filled quest; now it seeks reassurance. After a season of such switches, it’s not certain which of sensibility’s maps is foreign and which contains the home to which the self returns. One might feel nostalgia for home even though one is there. As the border between home and away blurs, one can’t be sure when the journey ended, or if it ever began. Going out feels like coming back or staying put, and we’re certain only that we’ve entered a dense fog. Travelers have long been stumbling into that darkness.

Setting out from Scotland in 1873, Isabella Lucy Bird traveled far beyond the Far West, to Hawaii. Her account, Six Months in the Sandwich Islands (1875), suggests that she kept her experience in good imaginative order most of the time. But there are gaps. After “the sublimities of Kilauea” came a ride of seven hours through “a strange. . . country, without any beauty” on the outskirts of Mauna Loa. The last two hours of this trek by mule-back were through “a dripping fog, so dense that I had to keep within kicking range of the mules for fear of being lost.” Bird and her party stumble across a settlement, find “rough accommodation,” and try to make themselves comfortable.

It was very cold, the afternoon fog closed us in, and darkness came on prematurely, so that I felt a most absurd sense of ennui. . . . Actual, undoubted, night came on without Mr. Green, of whose failure I felt certain. . . . I rolled myself in a blanket and fell asleep on the bench, only to awake in a great fright, believing that the volcano house was burning over my head, and that a venerable missionary was taking advantage of the confusion to rob my saddle-bags, which in truth one of the men was moving out of harm’s way, having piled up the fire two feet high.

Presently a number of voices outside shouted Haole! and Mr. Green came in shaking the water from his waterproof, with the welcome words, “Everything’s settled for to-morrow.”. . . If Mr. G. has an eye for the picturesque, he must have been gratified as he came in from the fog and darkness into the grass room, with the flaring fire in the middle, the rifles gleaming on the wall, the two men in very rough clothing, and myself huddled up in a blanket sitting on the floor, where my friend was very glad to join us.

Fog and then night blur the traveler’s sense of her place on the map. Feeling lost, she falls asleep, and vision opens onto a nightmare of disaster—geological and presumably sexual. Then Mr. Green, the story’s agent of order, returns to the hut, and vision returns to the world made picturesque, hence orderly, by firelight. The next morning, Bird’s amazing stamina brings her face to face with disorder by daylight, as she ascends Mauna Loa by way of

vast uplands of pahoehoe which ground away the animals’ feet, a horrid waste[land], extending upwards for 7,000 feet. For miles and miles, above and around, great billowy masses, tossed and twisted into an infinity of fantastic shapes, arrest and weary the eye, lava in all its forms, from a compact phonolite to the lightest pumice stone, the mere froth of the volcano. Recollect the vastness of this mountain. . . . Its height is nearly three miles, and its base is 180 miles in circumference, so that Wales might be packed away within it, leaving room to spare. Yet its whole bulk. . . is one frightful desert, at once the creation and the prey of the mightiest force on earth.

Struggling, slipping, tumbling, jumping, ledge after ledge was surmounted, but still, upheaved against the glittering sky, rose new difficulties to be overcome. Immense bubbles have risen from the confused masses, and bursting, have yawned apart. . . . Massive flows have fallen in, exposing caverned depths of jagged outlines. . . . Horrid streams of a-a, which, after rushing remorselessly over the kindlier lava, have heaped rugged pinnacles of brown scoriae into impassable walls, have to be cautiously skirted. . . . leaping from one broken hummock to another, clambering up acclivities so steep that the pack-horse rolled backward once, and my cat-like mule fell twice, moving cautiously over crusts which rang hollow to the tread; stepping over deep cracks, which, perhaps, led down to the burning, fathomless sea. . . and again for miles surmounting rolling surfaces of billowy, ropy lava—so passed the long day, under the tropic sun and the deep blue sky.

Its scale preposterously vast, the violent distortions of this landscape produce a double chaos: physical and conceptual. The lava desert assumes the forms of a stormy ocean and, despite the tropical sun, its billows are frozen into a horrid solidity. Words like “bursting,” “struggling, slipping, tumbling, jumping,” “caverned,” and “fathomless” echo Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” a rhapsody set in a landscape with “ceaseless turmoil seething,” shaken by the “burst” of its “mighty fountain,” and rendered unmappable by its “deep romantic chasm,” “sinuous rills,” “dancing rocks,” and “caverns measureless to man.”

Let those echoes go unheard and Bird’s account of her trek through the lava fields sounds like the record of an impressively tough day—all the tougher if the reader bears in mind that she suffered back ailments requiring her to wear a metal brace. If one hears her variations on Coleridge, this relentlessly detailed recollection of scrabbling across an abyssal landscape also sounds as though it is baring her toward a danger: by burdening the image of a hostile terrain with such an immense weight of personal meaning she runs the risk of drawing a portrait of herself, the traveler, as the landscape. Bird does not simply transfer the poet’s images from “Kubla Khan” to Mauna Loa, she reverses their significance: the sexual heat of Coleridge’s language fades; his “breathing,” fleshly landscape turns statuesque; life sinks to death. Seeking to match language to the grotesque, dangerous forms of this wilderness, Bird provides clues to her tastes in poetry but offers no hint that she looked much at paintings. J. M. W. Turner’s images of chaos do not appear to have guided her, though her rendering of the Hawaiian lava fields does remind me of another painter—Jackson Pollock.

It’s not a matter of resemblance but of my encouraging a quality of feeling to drift from one period, one medium, to another. Bird’s “froth of the volcano” suggests the possibility of seeing Pollock’s darkest, most chaotically swirling canvases as deathly chasms, not as the wellsprings of primordial life that criticism so often makes them out to be. I see no solid link between Pollock’s art and this Victorian traveler’s writing, only a similarity, a force of attraction that develops into a powerful collision. The shock disturbs meaning's coordinates.

As I track Bird’s journey through the fog, she begins to look like an allegorical figure, an emblem for some aspect of modern life that can’t be subjected to order—if indeed she bears any meaning at all beyond the routine significance assigned to her by the current fad for travel books. As she emerges into the lava fields, I stop and wonder if it is not willful to try to derive any contemporary benefit from clues left by the work of this little-known writer, though her stamina provides a warrant for such excesses of will. But I want to assign her an important place on the patchwork map drawn by this series of articles, one that distinguishes her only partially from fog and the bright light of the lava desert, with its “immense bubbles. . . bursting. . . massive flows. . . fallen in, exposing caverned depths of jagged outlines.” Her description points us to 1987 and this art-world moment, a time self-consciously layered over previous times. Some historical strata have seethed up to the surface and frozen there, turning past into present, though much of our moment has collapsed, leaving chasms that give the present the feel of nontime. In this terrain, landmarks slip and vanish. Critical mechanisms designed to orient us jam and stall or begin to stammer out, over and over, the same message about style, personal truth, ideology. Frozen or writhing, the landscape loses contact with the feet. Keats’ question “Do I wake or sleep?” turns into an uncertainty about the location of the insomniac alertness we all suffer: has one’s viewpoint shifted, leaving vision behind, suspended above an abyss of disconnected detail, or has the terrain stayed in place, sending vision into an unchartable orbit? Am I lost in the present or has the present lost me? Our satisfied judgments feel less and less like truths, more like devices for maintaining a fiction of equilibrium.

Some of us were always ready, if pressed, to acknowledge that our judgments rest on fictive foundations, but we were in the habit of talking as if the viewer’s experience of a work of art is a gathering of clues that lead to absolute truth about a work—or as if to follow the wrong clue were to shunt oneself off the main line to a nowhere of incorrect judgment. But with the explosion of the artist population, and with institutions, including that of art criticism, elaborating their structures, physical and conceptual, in a fury of construction, seismic pressures build up in esthetic terrain already “struggling, slipping. . . jumping.” Quakes, minor and major, are constant, and meaning steadily “yawns apart.” When every fragment offers itself as a clue, every configuration of clues looks like a solution—but isn’t. They are signs of dilemmas, signs that lead back to themselves in shorter and shorter loops until images of judgment are taken for judgments of images. Holmesian detective work that encloses art and the world in tight patterns of meaning has the allure it has long had. Viewers and artists still indulge themselves in those fictions of clarity, but our moment, foggy and light-blasted by turns, forces us to acknowledge their inadequacy. To get through the “impassable walls” of the present, we need a different model of the detective—the Chandleresque variety, less a reasoning machine than the emblem of a certain style of being, that of the individual who has lost faith in “the facts.” Under media pressure the figure has evolved into the heroes of the Blade Runner movie and the Max Headroom TV show. They still solve crimes, because cultural inertia demands it; there’s a plot, but the weight of the story’s atmosphere usually obscures it. The post-Holmesian detective uncovers clues with offhanded gestures that usually look far less dramatic than the light his intuitions beam into a fog generated by an overload of conflicting clues, indications, meanings. Raymond Chandler didn’t always keep track of his plots, and even when he did the solution of their puzzles is incidental to the spectacle of his protagonist, Philip Marlowe, struggling to stay afloat in zones where every nuance is ambiguous and every clue leads in as many directions as one has energy to follow—a region where the fictiveness of our fictions of order is recognized, if only implicitly. Make that recognition explicit and one travels beyond metaphors of detective stories, whether closed, Holmesian systems or Chandleresque abysses. One travels beyond all images of the abyss to the abyss itself.

Science depends on standards of truth. So do math, logic, and some branches of philosophy. We feel we have means of judging truth or falsehood in matters of morality. Historians define admissible evidence in their own way, as do members of the legal profession. Standards of truth take many shapes; none makes a good fit with events or artworks seen as gestures, initiatives capable of meaning but neither true nor false. But we persist in trying to define life and art by imposing standards of judgment that obscure questions of meaning by turning them into questions of truth and falsehood, right and wrong. What demand for truth have we not made of art? We ask it to give us accurate pictures of objects and of the spirit, of logic’s structure and the textures of emotion. Arguments about the history of Modernist styles or about painting’s ahistorical process of revealing its essence enclose even Pollock’s expansive works in tight analytic patterns. Criticism that politicizes Pollock only to reduce his paintings to illustrations of some ideological picturesque, on the left or the right, give me the sense that I’m not seeing what he did. Only when I let his work break free of such structures do I see its abyssal energy. Only then does it persuade me. But such persuasions are disquieting. It’s more comforting to take sides in a dispute over opposed truths about an artist’s work—it embodies a formalist truth, an essence, or it reaches back to primevally sincere emotions; it is an instrument of utopian liberation or it makes common cause with institutional oppression. These contraries are endlessly varied and powerfully tempting. Agree that truth lies on one side of a simple opposition and experience falls into neat patterns: we are right; those who disagree with us are the perpetrators of a fraud, a heresy, a crime. With that definition in place, we develop others, equally polarizing. We do this not because we are so dedicated to truth, or because we don’t care about the meanings obscured by misfitting truth-standards, but because we don’t want to fall into an abyss. We retreat to fictions of order and give them a fictive air of truth.

To experience consciously the fictiveness of our fictions, as we might experience in full consciousness the actuality of another person, is to run the risk of undefining, of dismantling, the person our image of ourselves had assured us we were. Not that our self-image will disappear. We don’t attain the real by forgetting our fictions but by remembering that they are fictive and why we invented them, what need drove our rhetoric. So the fictions we recognize as fictive remain. Their meaning becomes clearer, though, because we no longer distract ourselves with the project of defending the truth of what is neither true nor untrue, but a gesture with a certain significance. The gain is immense, and not only in uncertainty.

Like a state of uncertainty, a picture of chaos is not truer but more helpful than an imposition of false order, because it points us toward a clearer sense of our situation. Images of chaos disrupt the patterns of response enforced by tightly ordered images; they inspire doubts, and they encourage long, unauthorized leaps of association—like the suggestion that Isabella Bird’s lava field looks like a Pollock drip painting.

When we read truth into fictions, we constrain ourselves with a fiction. Released from that constraint, we feel lost, because we have begun to drift into freedom. There we run the risk of getting to know what we mean by our gestures.

Carter Ratcliff is a writer who lives in New York. He contributes regularly to Artforum.

“The Adventure of the Third Essay” is the last in this series of articles.