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Taking the Side of Things

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Ponge: Taking the Side of Things

The French writer Francis Ponge takes the side of things. Having felt he

couldn't grasp absolute truths in ideas he opted for objects. The physical forms

of materials that we relate to each day could be trusted whereas those truths in

ideas can be invalidated by contradictory ideas since there is no acquired

capital, no solid ground to step on or over, ideas remain in a state of flux like the

sea, and provoke in him a feeling of nausea. "However, ideas, opinions, strike

me as determined in each of us by something quite different from free will or

judgment. I don'tknowanything more subjective. I really don't understand how

one can be proud of them, and what I find intolerable is that one tries to impose

them on others." 1

From explaining his mistrust of ideas, Ponge, in his essay "My Creative Method,"

goes on to explain why he has devoted himself to cataloguing and defining objects

in the external world. He then asks himself "How is it then that there is more than one dictionary in the

same language during the same period, and yet their definitions of the same objects are not identical?

How is it that what one finds there seems to be more a definition of words than of things? Why is there

this difference between the definition of a word and the description of the thing designated by the word?

Why is it that dictionary definitions seem to be so lacking in concreteness and descriptions so

incomplete, so arbitrary, so capricious? Couldn't one imagine some kind of writing which, placing itself

more or less between the two (definition and description), would borrow from the former its infallibility;

and from the latter its respect for the sensory aspect of things?" 2

That is what his book "Taking the Side of Things" is about. Taking objects and

writing about them, he has been able to let his writing fall between definition and

description. There is a delight in his writings - a certain joy discovered in living

and working in this physical world of wonderful objects. These objects exist in

themselves and therefore not asking for human approval for their existence.

What Ponge is trying to define is important because he is defining one of the

many crises facing our civilization- he points out how we relate to our material

world. We have lost touch with objects. Our product-oriented society has

become only interested in the ends to be gained from products. We exploit the

raw materials given to us from the earth and we don't know where to dump the

trash we leave behind. Ponge is saying that all you have to do is look at how we define objects in any

dictionary to see that the ideas about the objects have become more important than actually describing

the object; the abstraction is the important thing, and this has gotten us to the point where we feel we

are drowning in our own creations. It is all contained in William Carlos Williams' poem

"Spring and All"

"The pure products of America go crazy -

As if the earth under our feet were an

excrement from the sky" 3

How can we change this direction? Only by somehow developing a love for this place called earth - a

change from the religious views by seeing heavens as this world, this earth, not out of this world. Not a

strengthening or weakening of ego, but one of co-existence.

"What is completely spontaneous in man as he touches the earth is an immediate feeling of familiarity,

sympathy, or even veneration of matter: is anything more fitting for the spirit?

Whereas spirit venerating spirit...can you see that? - One sees only too much of

it." 4

A long section in "Taking the Side of Things" is devoted to the pebble. He begins

by describing the pebble as a form or state of stone somewhere between rock

and gravel.

Having stated rock, he goes back to the beginning, sees stone as the earth, and

through wearing away of the earth by natural elements, stone is reduced to

rock, pebble, gravel, and finally to sand. The history of the earth seen as

perpetual disintegration.

The larger fragments, slabs of stone, make the global skeleton, and on them nature germinates,

invading and fracturing stone. This is all done through a state of living and dying. Plants linger, fade and die away, and through seeds left by dying

plants, plant life increases its attack on stone. Here, Ponge finds a paradox: life pretends to envy the indestructibility of its setting, but contributes

to the continued disintegration of that setting. Through this unity of action " it mistakenly believes its foundation may one day fail it, while believing

itself to be eternally renewable." 5

"To die and live again, plants, animals, gases, and liquids move, more or less rapidly. The great wheel of stone seems to us practically, and even

theoretically immobile; we can only imagine a portion of its slowly disintegrating phase. So that contrary to popular opinion which makes stone in

Man's eyes a symbol of durability and impassiveness, one might say that stone, which does not regenerate, is in fact the only thing in nature that

constantly dies." 6

From this point, Ponge makes an important discovery - that all forms of stone, in any stage of its development, exists simultaneously in the world.

No generations, no past, any man can touch the full potentials of the world as stone. In that world, there are no conceptions; everything exists.

Ponge ends by describing the effects water has upon stone. Water is the element having the strongest effect upon stone, and they are opposites.

Water, as liquid, can't contain its own form but is a slave to gravity, and as a slave one can do anything to it, even lead water through pipes.

It is water thought that shapes the pebble, but try as it might to penetrate it can only wear it away. The pebble, through this contact, may come out

smaller, but it will be intact and the pebble, with no effort, does away with water, since the pebble once removed from the water dried immediately.

"So that when vanquished, it finally becomes sand, water can still not penetrate it as it penetrates dust.

Keeping all traces except those of liquid, which limits itself to trying to erase all other traces, it lets the whole sea filter through, which disappears

into its depth without in any way being able to make mud of it." 7

All of this goes on without man having anything to do about it. But we try to enter, or rather to bring this all into our realm of being. We force stones,

plants, and animals into our conceptual chaos in order to satisfy our pleasures.

What would be the civilization of the stone? At least there are a few of us, like Ponge, who are able to enter into it through our sensibilities. "Such is

the globe's appearances today. The severed cadaver of the being that was once the world's grandeur now serves merely as a background for the

life of millions of beings infinitely smaller and more ephemeral. In places, their crowing is so dense it completely hides the sacred skeleton that was

once their sole support." 8

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1, Ponge, Francis. THE VOICE OF THINGS. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1972 p. 81

3. Williams, William Carlos. Selected Poems. New York: New Directions, 1949. p.36

7. Ibid, p. 76 - 8. Ibid, p. 70

 
 
 
 

A Legacy Carved in Stone

 

Introduction

Taking the Side of Things

Omphalos and Lapis Manalis

Creation

England

The Stones of Camus

Twentieth Century Stone Sculpture

Richardson 's Original Monster Rock

Band

Robert Smithson

The Moon Gets its Rocks off on Earth

In Praise of Limestone

Essay by Laura Welikson

 

Life

Exhibitions

Collections

Awards

Press

Publications

Brad's Writings 

Selected Essays

 

Francis Ponge

1899–1988