TEXT by Jonathan P Watts

Benedict Drew: Ground Feeder


In the preface to Back to Methuselah: A Metabiological Pentateuch(1921) — a long, learned semi-autobiographical tract on evolutionism — playwright George Bernard Shaw cites the German Neo-Darwinist August Weismann, whose History of Evolution devotes a passage to the ideas of the early German biologist Lorenz Oken. Oken, writing in 1809, observed that the original substance from which all forms of life developed on earth was a primitive slime, or Urschleim. And this slime, he claimed, took the form of innumerable vesicles (Schleimpunkte) — fluid-filled bladders, sacs or blobs — from which the entire universe was built. 

Shaw thought Oken a visionary: his vesicles anticipated modern cell morphology, long before the microscope and scalpel extended the perception of secularised lab workers. Oken considered natural science to be the 'the science of the everlasting transmutations of the Holy Ghost in the world'. Approaching the mysteries of the universe was, therefore, approaching Him. Those secularised Modern lab workers, Shaw explains, remove dogs' glands or tie up ducts, depriving them of strange vital slimes, their aim to affirm a known-known, the primacy of neurology, while in the process causing unnecessary injury. In Oken Shaw recognised a religious thinker who thought very hard to find out what was happening to the Holy Ghost; the irony is that such thinkers effected a shift towards scientific disenchantment — increasingly, external forces appeared not to be the Will of God. As Oken approached, He receded. 

If slime constitutes the building blocks of life (Schleimpunkte), and slime we become should our dead bodies putrefy, encounters with any viscous substance could be more than a little unnerving. Slime is both ignoble and noble. A taboo existed in eighteenth-century Britain against eating creatures engendered of slime and putrefaction, 'the excrements of the earth,' as one doctor put it, 'the slime and scum of the water, the superfluity of the woods and the putrefaction of the sea: to wit... frogs, snails, mushrooms and oysters'. The taste for such creatures among the French and Italians only fueled English prejudice. Professor of ecology and evolutionary biology John Tyler Bonner argues that without cellular slime molds life on Earth would not be possible. A cellular slime mold begins as a single-celled amoeba. Providing it has food, the amoebae divide and live as single-cell organisms; deprived of food, the amoebae aggregate to form a slug in response to a chemical signal from a group of cells or a single founder cell. These slime slugs sense light, thermal or gaseous gradients, and migrate to food. An accelerated image of this non-human collectivist intelligence — red scare? — seeped into the post-war American imagination with The Blob (1958).

A precarious slime, 'spasmodic sap', is how the ethnographer Roger Caillois characterises the emergence of life in The Writing of Stones(1970): 

Life appears: a complex dampness, destined to an intricate future and charged with secret virtues, capable of challenge and creation. A kind of precarious slime, of surface mildew, in which a ferment is already working... Obscure distillations generate juices, salivas, yeasts. Like mists or dews, brief yet patient jellies come forth momentarily and with difficulty from a substance lately imperturbable: they are evanescent pharmacies, doomed victims of the elements, about to melt or dry up... It is the birth of all flesh irrigated by a liquid... like the semisolid in the chrysalis, halfway between larva and insect, a blurred gelatin which can only quiver until there awakens in it a wish for a definite form and an individual function. 

Ostensibly, Caillois is not discussing human life. The Writing of Stones,his second on the subject, gathers to display, with commentary, his personal collection of polished precious stones, those he 'often looked at, handled, and caressed': jasper and agate, chalcedony and onyx. The extraordinary marks imbued in the stones is a kind of Urwriting; they receive their secret inscriptions over geological durations, durations that dwarf the human. 'There are impossible scribblings in nature, written neither by men nor by devils,' Caillois writes. And in these scribbles a viewer might decipher proto-images of anything invented by human visual culture, so that 'already present in the archives of geology, available for operations then inconceivable, was the mode of what would later be an alphabet'. There were moors, bishops, lobsters streams, faces, plants, dogs, fishes, tortoises, dragons, death's heads, crucifixes — everything a mind bent on identification could fancy. These were not copies, only ciphers for things. And yet Caillois was discussing human life: stones, like humans, are at the intersection of countless unknown forces too unpredictable to be measured, that shape us. So the stones might be ciphers for humanity at large. 'The tissue of the universe is continuous,' Caillois wrote. 'I can scarcely refrain, from suspecting some ancient, diffused magnetism; a call from the center of things; a dim, almost lost memory, or perhaps a presentiment, pointless in so puny a being, of a universal syntax.' But this was not to assert some anthropomorphic purchase on the world of things: he had long given up regarding man as external to nature. In The Writing of Stones man recedes among slime and minerals.   

Earlier, in 1929, Caillois' colleague Michel Leiris, with whom he would co-found the College de Sociologie, fascinated over the damp slimy orifice just below the eyes — the mouth. Spit specifically, or 'mouth water' as he calls it, with its 'lack of consistency, its indefinite contours, the relative imprecision of its colour, its wetness', is an unverifiable substance, the very symbol of formlessness. It is a 'soft and sticky stumbling block that, better than any sort of rock, trips up the steps of everyone who imagines a human being to be something: 

— something other than an unmuscled, hairless animal, the spit of a delirious demiurge who roars with laughter at having expectorated this conceited larva, this comical tadpole who swells up into a demigod's puffy meat.   

Spit is necessary for food to tumble down the organic ladder and eject through damp orifices below. In oral sex the mouth — the outward sign of intelligence — meets these most shameful organs, reducing man to the level of primitive animals for which a shared single orifice is the organ of both nutrition and excretion. We become frog, snail, mushroom or oyster. Oral sex represents diabolical retrogressive chaos, as if the noble and ignoble has not yet been disentangled. Spit, therefore, represented the height of sacrilege. When we think of this what value can we really give to philosophical oration, Leiris asks, if language and spit issues from one and the same organ? 

French sound poet Henri Chopin's renunciation of language in his articleWhy I am the Author of Sound Poetry and Free Poetry (1967) did not issue from a mythical-surrealist examination of organs, though he would have been aware of Leiris's; rather, the word had been instrumentalised by bankers, politicians and leaders to create profit, to justify work and occupation. In short it had permitted life to lie. Chopin's solution? A-significant human sounds, without alphabet, without reference to an explicative clarity. 'The mimetic sound of man, the human sound,' he writes, 'does not explain. It transmits emotions, it suggests exchanges, affective communications; it does state precisely, it is precise.' He continues: 

I'm fond of my noises and of my sounds, I admire the immense complex factory of a body. I'm fond of my glances that touch, of my ears that seem of my eyes that receive.

Addressing his readers directly, Chopin explains how it matters little whether they will like this synaesthetic disorganisation because in spite of themselves it will embrace them and circulate inside. Sound poetry must, he writes, 'open our effectors to our own biological, physical and mental potentials beyond all intellect'. How slimy Chopin's microphone must have been when he expelled it from his own body. 

photos by Chrissy Irvine