Monday, October 26, 2015


They come at me at points in the day, when I'm least aware. When I'm lying in bed at night, or during a slow afternoon at the office. Sinuous forms, peacock feathers and nudibranchs, dancing around the corners of my vision before they dissipate in the murk, or swim off into the unknown territories beyond my eyelids.

All of them could loosely be termed “arabesques,” a loosely used term, of course, but something that also implies complexity, interwovenness, and transcendence.

We get the term from the intricate patterns of Middle Eastern decorative work, mosque tiles filled with lines wrapped around one another in eternal horror vacui. In the cosmology of the Islamic Golden Age, it was the purest form of representation. The curvilinear patterns reflected the warp and woof of the Arabic script, and by extension, the Qu'ran, shape and language bound together in an eternal logos.

And in Southeast Asia, it manifests itself in the unalom, the spiral pattern that decorates the edges of sak yant tattoos and mandalas, and which I see in white paint on the roofs of Bangkok taxis, interlaced with the ancient Khmer script.

The forms exist in nature. Not only in the vines and tendrils that inspired so much of the original Middle Eastern arabesques, but also in the invisible forces that contour the world around us.

I see them in the sea creatures that seem to toe the line between plant and animals, floating on waves, or fixed to the ocean floor, like creaturely plants. Lacking vertebrae, constrained as they are by water pressure and turbulent flow, the crinoids and corals and coelenterates, bryozoans and holothurians seem to us earthbound creatures to be as unfamiliar as aliens. And in his masterwork Kunstformen der Natur, Ernst Hackel painted and displayed them to almost look abstract in their unfamiliarity, patterns that could readily decorate a Turkish doorway.

You see the arabesque form inscribed into the rock in the gravitational flow of water, in the deltas that frame the swampy ground at the mouths of rivers, and in dry regions, deserts and Alpine highlands, the ghosts of streams form great alluvial fans.

And you see it in the Lichtenberg figures, the delicate, dendritic tracings that demonstrate the flow of energy through insulating matter. They appear in the clay of lightning-struck soil, and on the skin of lightning strike victims.

In the late 1950s, Gaston Bachelard turned his attentions to these sorts of descriptions. Unsatisfied with descriptions of the world around him in terms of origins and causes, he turned to raw, lived experience, how the thing in the world reverberates with him, the observer. He believed his subjective experience to be indicative of universals.

I don't ascribe any universality to the arabesques I see. A hardline phenomenologist might say that they constitute some kind of deep-seated umwelt. But I think that, in reality, as with all perceptive phenomena of this sort, they are simply the constellation I perceive among many stars, seen through my own very specific telescope.

And yet it's a powerful enough connection that it shapes my perception for them. Lying in my bed, they seem to move around me, velvet-black and shimmering gold. When I wake up in the morning, they suddenly scatter as my eyes open. They lie there in wait, hiding themselves in the shadowiest recesses.