3 min read

Their arch of promise the wide Heaviside layer

I recently reread a William Empson poem, Doctrinal Point, which shares some themes with the sort of Brian Cantwell Smith "middle distance" stuff I like to ramble on about, so I'm going to do that some more. High context.

The poem is pretty short and hard to find online, so I'll reproduce it here:

The god approached dissolves into the air.

Magnolias, for instance, when in bud,
Are right in doing anything they can think of;
Free by predestination in the blood,
Saved by their own sap, shed for themselves,
Their texture can impose their architecture;
Their sapient matter is always already informed.

Whether they burgeon, massed wax flames, or flare
Plump spaced-out saints, in their gross prime, at prayer,
Or leave the sooted branches bare
To sag at tip from a sole blossom there
They know no act that will not make them fair.

Professor Eddington with the same insolence
Called all physics one tautology;
If you describe things with the right tensors
All law becomes the fact that they can be described with them;
This is the Assumption of the description.
The duality of choice becomes the singularity of existence;
The effort of virtue the unconsciousness of foreknowledge.

That over-all that Solomon should wear
Gives these no cope who cannot know of care.
They have no gap to spare that they should share
The rare calyx we stare at in despair.
They have no other that they should compare.
Their arch of promise the wide Heaviside layer
They rise above a vault into the air.

So, overall, this poem is kind of weird. It's an early one from when he was experimenting with using lots of technical language in his poetry, and I'm not sure the whole stanza of exposition on Eddington's theory exactly works, but there's still a lot of rich imagery here and I've been thinking about it for a while.

Anyway, he's talking about how magnolias are "free by predestination in the blood" to only do beautiful things. Unlike humans, they are locked into the world with "no gap to spare". This keeps them in the realm of what Smith would call "bumping and shoving", pure local causal action, best described by the language of physics. So in place of "the arch of promise" – God's covenant, the rainbow – they have the very physicsy Heaviside layer in the ionosphere to protect them. I can stretch this a bit and have the symbolism of the rainbow stand in for the whole idea of representation in general. The magnolias have no need for this as they are too closely bound to the world.

The Heaviside layer is one of several metaphors Empson uses that are to do with barriers and boundaries. Here's a quote where he explains himself a bit:

I meant here to compare together the cope of heaven which protects the earth (a world that seems complete to those inside it, like that of the flowers), the cope of the priest-king that symbolizes the protection of heaven, the calyx that protects the growing flower, the rainbow repeating the divine promise, the Heaviside layer that keeps off ultra-violet rays ... and vaults over tombs under the ground from which the flowers have risen. Also man was given authority over all the creatures, but this involves much toiling and spinning, as when in over-alls.

Boundaries are important because they prevent an undifferentiated slop of everything acting on everything else, and allow the separation needed for representation to work.

There's another thing that feels connected to me but I'm not sure exactly how this fits in, so I'm writing this post to maybe find out. Reading Smith I'm sometimes confused by one aspect of his framing. He makes a big deal about how representation allows us to think about things that are very distant in time and space. E.g. in The Origin of Objects:

With a few simple syllables we can reach backwards in time, against the flow of causality, to the Pharoahs of Egypt. Or reach forward, to things that have not yet happened, such as the election of the first female U.S. president. Or to Pluto, without having to wait five or six hours for our reference to succeed. Or to Huckleberry Finn, without even needing our referent to exist.

This is absolutely true and important, but he often brings it up without at the same time talking about the webs of causal connection that were needed to make these references work. Somebody needed to write about the Pharoahs, or dig up artefacts from them, or detect photons from Pluto, and then other people needed to tell us about them. The web is deeply physically and socially distributed, but it does exist. He obviously does know about that stuff too, but tends to not mention it at the same time, which makes it all sound confusingly magic, like there's real spooky connections to the future or to nonexistent people. Maybe he just doesn't mention it because it's supposed to be obvious? Anyway, it throws me slightly whenever I read him.

So, why does this feel connected to the Empson poem? I think it's something to do with all the barriers and boundaries keeping everything from everything else. Some sort of sketch of the intricate causal web that's broken up by boundaries into enough distinct pieces that the Pharoahs of Egypt are not in direct causal contact with me by any obvious route, but I can talk about them anyway.

I'm not quite there yet, idk. But this is a notebook post, so I'm shipping it now.