For Tim Ingold, in appreciation
For as long as I can remember, I have been entranced by the swiftly shifting, merging, blurring, forking, snaking and re-merging lines passing under and above a charging train. The intersections of railway tracks and criss-crossing of electric wires afforded by the safety of the window seat hold a hypnotic power that can fill you with a complex sense of dread and awe, for everything appears to be on a ceaseless, skilful move. Recently, on a train ride to London, as I put on my headphones to listen to ‘Life’ – a magnificent piece by the sublime composer Ludovico Einaudi – and aimlessly stared outside, I couldn’t help but think of the swelling and falling of violins and cellos in an intrinsic relationship to the blur of the lines, that seemed to both assist and compete with the train. The pageant of movement that the window so consistently offered seamlessly segued with the dramatically uplifting orchestral sounds, so that it felt as if the blurry tracks below and the slender wires above were the strings of the musical composition. Suddenly, the commonplace rows and stretches of metal acquired a magic of their own, and it became impossible to disregard them. Movement had brought change, in perception and thought, and change had begot magic.
But my fascination with lines does not originate in gazing at train tracks. Its genesis lies in my childhood culture and my life in the Himalayas where I grew amidst stunning walkways, streams, rivers and waterfalls rolling down the mountains, which from a distance, sparkled as a spectacular tableau vivant of veins. My earliest memory of drawing classes is rooted in lines as well, for it was a collectivity of lines that led to shapes, and shapes ushered the representable. Then from high school, I remember my geography classes on topographical maps which thrilled me with the use of a small piece of thread to measure the actual distance between two establishments, by carefully laying that thread along the depicted path and multiplying the calculated length with the scale ratio to elicit the actual distance. Actual! Real! That a piece of an otherwise non-descript, supple material could reveal ‘real’ information was unarguably a magical experience. But the most deep-seated engagement I used to have with lines was during the Festival of Lights, Diwali, when my mother would make a large pattern of colours – a ‘rangoli’- on the ground at the entrance, in the age-old tradition of welcoming visitors and the goddess of prosperity. Often, I would be left intrigued by her dextrous movement of hands that, in a matter of an hour or two, would conjure a stunning collage of colours. As adolescence reached its final years, I inherited this tradition of making rangolis, enrapturing in the navigation of my body steered by the gentle-yet-precise release of colours from the curl of my fingers. When I arrived in Cambridge and discovered that my room was carpeted, I decided to give a vertical spin to this horizontal genre of art, crafting wall hangings by linearly tracing and twisting coloured paper. The magic continued.
Over time, I realised that lines venturing this way and that captivated me because they came nearest to the material approximation of movement, of being-as-being, and that too in the sparsest manner. It was but natural then, that the sign of the tilde (~) became my most beloved key on the keypad, even though it was much later that I actually learned of its name. It lacked the sternness of the hyphen (-), with a waviness forever signifying flow. Friends will notice that when I recently performed my composition ‘Flow’ at a public event in my college, a piano-flute duet inspired by my love of Himalayan and Celtic music, I framed the title on the background screen between two tildes (~Flow~) so as to semiotically reinforce the sense of the title.
There then seems to run a fundamental link between lines and movement, magic and making. I was, therefore, quite taken in by my encounter with the persistence of lines –sometimes subtly, at others, direct- as I began researching fantasy for my PhD. For almost two years now, I have been studying the ways in which ideas and discourses around making and craftsmanship impact and structure the sense of the fantastical. While there are countless examples of maker figures within fantasy directly indexing the act or memory of making (a topic which demands separate article), there are also a number of instances in which magical materiality, in, of and by itself, taps into the notion of making, a notion that suggests a process rather than a finality, so that the inanimate perpetually drifts into the animate, an animation that frequently moves around lines. Fantasists imagine and articulate the affective charge of the fantastical through a stylised treatment of lines, generating an overwhelming impression of movement, not stasis. As Granny Weatherwax tells Tiffany Aching in Terry Pratchett’s Wintersmith (2006), ‘Magic is mostly movin’ stuff around.’
Lines intersect and flow away, and in this interaction and flowing lies the genesis of the fantastical. When in Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights (1995), Frader Coram questions Lyra on how she gleans the meanings of the golden compass’s permutations of signs, a small but significant meditation on lines punctuates Lyra’s showcasing: ‘An expert player seemed to see lines of force and influence on the board, and looked along the important lines and ignored the weak ones; and Lyra’s eyes moved the same way, according to some similar magnetic field that she could see and he couldn’t.’ In William Horwood’s Hyddenworld quartet (2010-13), magical materiality is constituted around two indispensable objects, both of which essentially manifest as conglomerations of lines: firstly, the White Horse of Uffington (a real, prehistoric, highly stylised chalk horse in Oxfordshire), which, whenever spotted ‘seems to have shifted and moved in both its shape and direction, as if it really [was] alive’; and secondly, the the massive ‘Embroidery’ piece whose continuously moving multiple threads demand discernment by the protagonist Stort, a discernment actuated through the teasing out of individual threads, since gaining a ‘perspective’ was all a matter of understanding ‘lines’ (as Stort realises in a moment of epiphany). The dazzling novel by Marcus Sedgwick The Ghosts of Heaven (2014) is entirely woven around the idea of the spiral line, that connects its otherwise disparate four novellas, three of which tap into the fantastical (albeit in ways unique to each). As one of the protagonists spots a spiral carved on a rock, she cannot help but notice that ‘there was some magic about that mark, old and powerful, she was sure’.
My fellow researchers may agree with the claim that whilst researching, when you become aware of something, you start noticing it everywhere. At our Cambridge Centre, we recently hosted an entire conference on horses in children’s literature, and since the moment I was informed of the topic, I couldn’t help but notice horses galloping everywhere! (I have just noted the presence of one such horse in Hyddenworld). My rendezvous with magical lines has been driven by such thinking too, but the basis of such thinking – as the beginning of this piece notes- owes more to my personal context than a pre-existing discussion on lines in fantasy. This lack led me to explore other disciplines where I might discover some discourse on lines and movement, and I wasn’t disappointed.
In his provocative work Lines: A Brief History (2007), the celebrated anthropologist and thinker Tim Ingold weaves an elegant narrative around the anthropology of lines, inspiring us to think of life as an enormously chequered collection of lines, constantly forming and unforming. Lines is a book to be cherished by one and all, for it certainly opens up entirely new vistas of thinking and appreciating the world and the details that make it that we so often take for granted. With examples ranging from literature, music and architecture to philosophy, archaeology, mathematics and more, Ingold churns a vocabulary around and for lines, that makes us better appreciate the dynamics of that everyday materiality which maps movement, flux and finitude.
While I won’t like to give any major spoilers from this wonderful work, I would, however, make a small reference to the book’s denouement. In the final chapter titled ‘How the line became straight’, Ingold dwells on the straight line as an ‘icon of modernity’ that has come to connote quantitative data, reason, dignity, and planning in the post-Enlightenment period. He does however, and beautifully so, nuance his observations by arguing that in reality, there is no perfectly straight line, and that bending and fragmentation continues, entering and defining our postmodernity. I was triggered to think of fantasy on these lines (pun, as you can see, both intended and inevitable!) because fantasy’s aesthetic sensibility constantly tries to diffuse the hegemony of modernity’s straight line. Weaselys’ house The Burrow appeals to Harry because it is devoid of any squaredness of Privet Drive. In sheer contrast also stands Malfoy Manor, which, despite being ‘handsome’ (in Rowling’s words) cannot help but exude a sense of foreboding, particularly in its film avatar, with its upright Renaissance lines defining the smooth surfaces, a smoothness that belies the darkest of tensions and intentions. What else is crookedness if not a warping of a straight line? Even in Hogwarts, despite the finely finished elegance of its uncrooked interiors, shiftiness of stairs and objects flexes the straightness of contours. Much of this affect of asymmetry, in a way, echoes what Robert Macfarlane terms as the ‘chic-raggedness’ of the English picturesque aesthetic. In my travels around the UK, this sense of raggedness has time and again surfaced at expected and unexpected places: some, the consequence of deliberate planning, others, the outcome of time, like in the unevenness of a roof top and the bent angles of wooden beams and staircases in countless houses. Stasis too, therefore, is not devoid of movement.
But the earliest and most evocative claims to lines by the fantasy novel form can be traced in the lushly decorated manuscripts of William Morris’s romances and in the works of JRR Tolkien. The cover of Tolkien’s Tree and Leaf (1964)- a book elaborating his theory of subcreation and an allegorical story on the same subject- depicts the spellbinding Tree of Amalion drawn by the author himself. The twirls and swirls branching and wrapping the curving trunk evoke the stippled patterns of Morris and mirror the metallic workmanship embossed on several wooden doors across the UK, later appropriated by contemporary fantasies as well (think of the Room of Requirement’s entrance in the HP films). The organicity channelized by the curving and joining lines of the Arts and Crafts aesthetic also gets recalled in the final Harry Potter film, when streaks of magic issue forth from the wands of Hogwarts’ professors in Book 7, veining and webbing together to form a shield to hold back the enemy. The straight line bends, and bends flexibly, to make magic.
Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Orfordness, a stunning vegetated shingle spit (Europe’s largest) bordering the coast of Suffolk that houses a commanding two centuries old lighthouse. It was both striking and saddening to learn that the lighthouse would fall in a few years’ time to be swallowed by the sea since it had been eating into the mainland. Saddening because of the prospect of erasure of a much loved landmark, and striking because of the change in the layout of the shingle spit itself. As I was told, the spit had been changing for centuries, and here, then, lay a most potent example of solidity in perpetual movement, a movement that was visibly changing a geography’s contour lines, lines that were fluid and fixed at the same time. Magic in a real landscape.
With lines cutting and stitching so much of our reality, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the ongoing exhibition at Cambridge’s University Library celebrating the institution’s 600th anniversary is titled ‘Lines of Thought’ (strongly recommended; also, free for all). Showcasing 4000 years of recorded thought preserved in the annals of the library, the display works along various lines of thought that have fundamentally defined human epistemology in art, literature and science. These lines, as the display catalogue states, take us “back into the past, and forward to tomorrow’s research, innovation and literature.”
If lines endure everywhere, how different then, is fantasy from reality?
This week’s post has ben written by Siddharth Pandey, who could have a career as a photographer if the whole PhD thing doesn’t work out. See more evidence of that here.