Martin Edmond



In rock art all over the world you find odd pieces of abstract, usually geometric, patterning—chevrons, spirals, lattices, zig zags, dots, wave forms and so on. Perhaps significantly, at the Aurignacian and Magdalenian caves of southern France and northern Spain, these abstractions are commoner at the entrances to the caves than they are further in, where the animal portraits we are more familiar with usually appear: they may mark a stage in a process of shamanic intoxication. In his book The Mind in the Cave, David Lewis-Williams suggests these marks can be understood as entoptic phenomena.
           Entoptic = within vision. In other words, this imagery may originate ... between the eye itself and the cortex of the brain. He distinguishes two types of entoptic imagery: phosphenes, induced by physical stimulation such as pressure on the eyeball itself; and form constants which derive from the optic system beyond the eye. There is a spatial relationship between the retina and the visual cortex which means that points close together on the retina, if stimulated, lead to the firing of equivalently placed neurons in the cortex. Lewis-Williams suggests that, when psychotropic substances are taken, as he believes they were by most ancient artists, the usual order of this process is, or can be, reversed so that the pattern in the cortex is perceived as the visual percept. People in this state may see the structure of their own brains.
           I was reminded of this recently while looking at a copy of a small pamphlet with a reproduction of a Colin McCahon drawing on the front. This was going to be the cover of a statement on aesthetics, called On the Nature of Art, written by McCahon and his friend and collaborator, John Caselberg, in the early 1950s but not published until 1999. The drawing has a lighted candle on a table in the foreground, behind which, and to one side, is a kerosene lamp, also lit; the beams of this lamp open out across the drawing to illuminate a piece of rectangular lattice-work which looks just like a piece of entoptic imagery derived from laboratory experiments in human neurology/perception, and also one of those grids you find in rock art.
           I very much like the idea that those who make art are looking both ways at once, into the brain/mind and out at the world of appearances as well; and that, when we look at the things they have made, we are as it were looking both ways twice: into and out of the artist's brain/mind and simultaneously into and out of our own.


In a section of The Mind in the Cave titled Construing universals Lewis-Williams introduces a neurological concept called the navicular entoptic phenomenon aka the fortification illusion. Its form has, he says, been established by laboratory research. Further: This is a scotoma frequently experienced by migraine sufferers. There are some wonderful colour illustrations of the phenomenon in Oliver Sacks' book Migraine. This is how Lewis-Williams describes it: In its more elaborate form, this percept comprises two elements: an outer arc characterized by iridescent flickering bars of light or zigzags, and, within the arc, a lunate area of invisibility—a 'black hole' that obliterates veridical imagery. Beyond the area of invisibility is the centre of vision ...
           The navicular entoptic phenomenon appears again and again in the rock art of the San of southern Africa, particularly in rock engravings; it is less common in the paintings. For a long time it was not recognised for what it is: people thought the crescent-shaped figures were boats and wondered why a desert people should draw them over and over. The phenomenon is often represented as a bee hive, perhaps because those entering trance states frequently experience aural hallucinations reminiscent of the buzzing of bees: it seems that some San link this aural experience to their simultaneous, shimmering visual hallucinations ... and believed they were both seeing and hearing bees swarming over honeycombs. The flickering outer curve may be construed as the flashing of antelope legs; these animals, or others, are shown emerging from 'behind' the navicule in the same way that so many of the animals painted in the caves of France and Spain are painted coming out of the rock upon which they seem to float.
           Another class of these images as painted by the San depict therianthropic beings rising from the inner curve of the navicule, out of the area of invisibility in the centre of vision. Lewis-Williams continues: It seems that some painters took the area of invisibility within the arc ... to be an entrance into the spirit world and a gateway to transformation; in this way the area of invisibility paralleled the vortex. San shamans, who could be either men or women, do not use psychotropic drugs to have their visions, rather they enter trance states by intense concentration, audio-driving, prolonged rhythmic movement and hyperventilation; i.e. through music, dance and chanting. Sometimes a shaman will fall down trembling violently in a cataleptic fit; sometimes they suffer nose bleeds, and then, since they are healers, the blood is smeared on those they wish to cure. In a deep trance their spirits are thought to leave their bodies through the tops of their heads. It is not known if in their culture there is a relationship between migraine and the navicular entoptic phenomenon.


One May or June day like this—sunny and cold and very clear, the air blue and sharp with distance—more than thirty years ago, Dean and Kepa and I each swallowed a tab of California Sunshine and set off from Snail's house at Leigh to climb the Pakiri Hill and then go down the other side to the beach. While Dean strode on ahead and I tried to keep up with him, Kepa, who lost a lung to tuberculosis and wheezed constantly through the other, hung back and complained: when do we get to THE beach? he would say. This was funny rather than annoying and helped keep us cheerful as we climbed, and the acid started to work, and the world began to fragment into geometrics and entoptics and other rhythm grids which were probably physiologically rather than neurologically based. When we got to THE beach, standing on that amazed reach of glittery white sand and looking out to sea, I saw how the air itself triangulated in ghostly shining chevrons all connected to each other, which seemed constantly to recede into the blue beyond. It helped me understand why Dean, even then, when he was just twenty or so, always used to lay out his canvases with a similar kind of triangulated grid before painting his cubistic kauri trees or nikau palms or seascapes.
           After we'd had a swim and been at THE beach for a while we decided to go around the coast to Goat Island, a rocky bay enclosed by an island, with water so clear a Marine Research Laboratory has been built there to study the plants and animals living in the sea and on the littoral. It was on that clamber back over wet black slick rocks and across tiny beaches made entirely out of fragments of sea shells, that I freaked out: we came to a place where the only way to cross a chasm of deep green rocking water was to leap over it. Dean leapt, and made it; Kepa tried, nearly fell, but Dean grabbed and pulled him up to safety. Then it was my turn; and I couldn't do it.
           It was a failure of nerve, some kind of excess of imagination that meant I had already thought what it would be like to fail and fall and so felt unable to take the risk. Dean and Kepa stood on the other side of the chasm, encouraging, exhorting, finally abusing me, as if shame might accomplish what gentler means could not; but still I would not jump. It was only when Kepa pointed out, reasonably enough, that I had the pipe and the tobacco and it wasn't really fair that he and Dean should have to continue on without anything to smoke, that my anxiety left me and I found the courage to leap.
           Later, as evening gathered in the cold trees under the hill, we stopped in at Quentin Lush's for a cup of tea with honey but no milk, then walked on in the dark up the unsealed road and down the other side to Snail's lighted house set up on the hill above the old sawmill and the town. Always when I think of that trip, it is the triangulated air swarming above the lines of surf at Pakiri I remember, the fear and then the overcoming of fear at the chasm and, perhaps incongruously, some words of Keats that came into my head at one of the tiny coves with beaches made only of shell fragments hissing and rustling and sighing as the sea sifted in and out:

               Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
               Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn ...


These lines from Ode to a Nightingale are a response to sound not vision; yet the birdsong nevertheless evokes a vision, or a waking dream that finds its own music in the verse. Language so used is sound and vision at once, heard in the inner ear, seen in the inner eye: on the viewless wings of Poesy. This remains so even when the lines are spoken aloud into the air, just as when something seen—tiny coves with beaches made of shell fragments—initiates a mental recall of the lines. At the head of the ode Keats suggests his state of mind resembles opiate intoxication or the onset of hemlock poisoning; later he calls for wine and later still evokes an embalmed darkness he navigates by scent alone. At poem’s end he is no longer sure if he wakes or sleeps …
           His report on experience is congruent with analysis of San and prehistoric cave art as evidence of entoptic phenomena, the bodying forth in the world of images that originate in our own mental or psychic structures. It is an easy and obvious step from here to posit that so-called imaginative writing is itself entoptic—within vision—using the perceived world to construct or reconstruct the psyche while at the same time, in the same act, configuring or reconfiguring the world in terms of structures of the mind. This doubling and redoubling of mind/world relation is both dynamic and open-ended and its results, if it has results, can never be anything but provisional. Is then the light of eternity in which art is said to repose the very thing that lets us see at all—this transformative stream of photons pouring from the sun?

Martin Edmond's Luca Antara will be launched at Gleebooks, Sydney, on the 17th of November.

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