CONJUNCTIONS:63, Speaking Volumes (Fall 2014)
Briefly Considered: Sub-Plots
“Then there were the sub-plots, being pleasant
things, which dreamt below four of the six gardens
of the parish. Mr. Tyros and the elders, however,
preached against the plots with such effect that
their manufacture was abandoned.”
Before constructing the garden, the sub-plot is considered. It is never spaded, dug, or trenched, but caved using dynamite, or any such potassium lumen. The charge is laced along the bare ground and exploded downward until the correct depth is confronted. Thus the process is also called lumination: from Latin, “light,” but also “opening.” When installing a new garden, the boom indicates that the process has begun—the boom, the first language of the garden space, its pneumaphon: breath + sound. This is a holy sound:
Again a dart, the Wind-God’s own,
In his treatise on lumination, Viollet-le-Duc notes that the sub-plot “is the artificial foundation on which the garden will rest” (C’est sur ce roc-factice que repose l’immense cathédrale).1 In his original French, factice (“artificial,” but also “dummy”) plays on both the creation of an a-physical space—a hollow upon which the garden rests—and its dumbness, or silence. The insistence on the garden as cathédrale suggests the sub-plot as crypt. Yet here is an empty crypt, loss without origin:
What bitter blanks in those black-bordered marbles which cover no ashes! What despair in those immovable inscriptions! What deadly voids and unbidden infidelities gnaw upon all Faith.Its phon, the primordial sound, is an impossibility: a body that never was, which simultaneously calls from within the coffin, “But I am here.” It is a silence (σιγάω) that lusters.
For every six shovelfuls of dirt, exploded by lumination and collected in a barrow, one shovelful of ripe manure or humus is mixed in. Water is added until the resulting mash is the consistency of heavy mortar, and enough mortar is pasted along the newly plumbed walls until they are completely resurfaced, preventing them from crumbling. A light raft of branches or sticks is braided over the dig, and then shoveled over with dirt.
In his commentaries on lumination, Origen indicates that the branches for the roof of the sub-plot should be those of the palm tree, “instead of branches cut from the trees or stubble brought from the fields and strewed on the road.” In the Greek, Origen uses the word poi (φοι), denoting branches from the date palm (φοῖν), which also suggests the particular color of the branches: purple or crimson. Origen also plays on the etymology of Phoenix (Φοίνιξ):
When this bird completes a full five centuries of life straightway with talons and with shining beak he builds a nest among palm branches, where they join to form the palm tree’s waving top. As soon as he has strewn in this new nest the cassia bark and ears of sweet spikenard, and some bruised cinnamon with yellow myrrh, he lies down on it and refuses life among those dreamful odors.Poi is both the Phoenix’s feathers and the color of its death. It is the nest it builds in the top of the tree, poin, and also the Phoenix itself. Poi is a tapestry of contradictory notions, which both affirm and deny that the Phoenix did, or will ever, exist. When one points to the bird at any particular moment, one has only a slur of colors, states of being, textures, ontologies, and irregular spaces. It is fitting, then, that poi seals the sub-plot. This is the perplexing beauty of the non space, the hidden heart that refuses to be defined. Once its roof is broken open, for instance.
The history of gardens is a history of order. Consider the Persian chahār bāgh, which is divided into four quadrangles to represent the four corners of the earth. Here the garden’s order is an analogue to pure, universal geometry. Or the Japanese kaiyū-shiki-teien, which uses miegakure to guide the visitor along a carefully chosen path. And finally the Victorian garden, whose special order is that of imperialism and conquest.
The garden is a rug onto which the whole world comes to enact its symbolic perfection.The sub-plot, on the other hand, refuses order. Once the space is constructed, it signs an impossible ontology. Thus the sub-plot is marked with the image of the obolus (όβολός), which carries a double meaning. On the one hand, the obolus is the shell of a clam. Although the lines of the shell are drawn in radiating concentric circles, they end at the crustacean’s lip. Yet here begins the clam’s double, its second half, where the radiating turns back toward its source, from the largest circle to its most minute at the hinge—and again, and again. It is fitting, then, that the obol is also the coin given over to Charon. We cross the river Styx clutching empty space, a shape that mirrors itself in hollows of calcite. We return to the place from which we perpetually depart.
But obolus is also oubliette (in Latin, oblīviscī): absolute interiority. Closed and locked, it is a room without language. One cannot speak of the sub-plot, but only its skin. Once it is covered with palm leaves, laid with fresh soil for seeding and planting, and then grown thick with vegetation, the sub-plot is dream, and the dream is always already obliterated the moment it is enacted—oblīviscī, forgotten.
Instead, we may lie down in some garden and close our eyes and test the space by thunking upon it.
The sub-plot, then, reminds us that the garden never draws to a conclusion. It is the perpetual question When? Whereas the garden will proceed chronologically, the sub-plot may exist kairologically; that is, it has always already existed, and in doing so, it is always already forgotten.
At the end of the season, say, in late summer, when the kale begins to yellow, the tomatoes are touched with frost, or the broccoli has been cleared of its crowns, we pull the stalks and rupture the soft soil. When the pulled roots are especially deep, one might get down closer to the soil and peer at the earth as it is carried away in bits, both clinging to the excavated roots and also as it piles concentrically around the new lack. From the fissure arises static, an aggregate noise (Latin, nausea; Greek, ναυσία). But one realizes that the static is unsourced—it seems as if it was already there, somewhere in the color of the excavated plants, the garden itself, maybe the space around the garden.
Soon snows begin to fall. The ground is covered in a fine white sheen. When the first deep freezes come, the grubs and nymphs bury themselves deeper in the soil, protected by the blanket of snow. It is the season when all things kneel before Boreas, who dwells in the cave of Mount Haemus in Thrace. He is god of the north winds, bringer of winter. “By force I drive the weeping clouds,” says Boreas.
I whip the sea, send gnarled oaks crashing, pack the drifts of snow, and hurl the hailstones down upon the lands. I, when I meet my brothers in the sky, the open sky, my combat field, I fight and wrestle with such force that heaven’s height resounds with our collisions and a blaze of fire struck from the hollow clouds leaps forth. I, when I’ve pierced earth’s vaulted passageways and in her deepest caverns strain and heave my angry shoulders, I put ghosts in fear, and with those tremors terrify the world.
* * *
In spring the garden is reseeded. We plant spinach and kale, collards, turnips, carrots, parsnips, lettuce, radishes, and peas. Sometimes the nights dip to freezing, and in the morning the seedlings are a deeper and more fragile green. But if the day is warm, the plants recover, and by late afternoon it is as if the night never was. Soon the fruit trees bloom, the apricot a thousand buds of white. And then, when the promise of frost is forgotten, the tomatoes and peppers and eggplants and squash are sown. Sunflowers are already a foot high. Scapes are clipped from the garlic and onions. Soon summer will be upon us. The cycle is replenished.
And yet: There is always a lurking space, neurosis of the terra. It is there in the night. In Aeschylus, the seven warriors sacrifice a bull; “touching the bull’s gore with their hands,” they swear an oath to Phobos, god of fear, who delights in blood. But their promise is false. Gore will not undo gore. Tautologies, which are intractable, cannot be undone.
Gaia, earth and mother, daughter of primal Chaos, has her secrets. When we draw the space below the garden, so do we pay tribute to the silence from which all life springs.
The sub-plot is an infinite sphere, the center of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere.The sub-plot is the song of our bodies. Always already lost, it refuses us. And we embrace it in discomfort.
1. Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française du XIe au XVIe siécle,Volume 4.
Adam Weinstein is a PhD candidate in creative writing and a Steffensen Cannon fellow at the University of Utah, and nonfiction editor for Quarterly West. The writing of the essays in this issue was supported by the Taft-Nicholson Center for Environmental Humanities.