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to make the stone stony


“The lizards told me that there was a legend among the stones that God wanted once to become a stone, in order to save them from their rigidity. An old lizard opined, however, that this stony incarnation would only happen after God had incarnated himself in all the species of animals and plants and redeemed them. Only a few stones have feelings, and they only breathe out in moonlight. But these few stones who have a feeling for their circumstances are horribly miserable. The trees are much better, they can cry. The animals, though, are the best of all, because they can speak, each after its own kind, and human beings are the best at it. Once when the whole world is saved, all other created things will be able to speak, as in the primitive times that the poets sing.”

Heinrich Heine’s legend of the stones, as recounted by the lizards, comes in his travel book about the city of Lucca in Italy. It rather violates the convention of those travel books that concentrate on the sights, as evidently it begins with the lizards of the Apennines. I wonder if this legend of the stones was on Skhlovsky’s mind when, in Art as Technique, he famously wrote: “Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.”

Skhlovsky’s sentence, if it obliquely refers to Heine’s text, would not be the first time that Art was the substitute of God. This has proven to be one of the enduring themes in the era of art outside the system of patronage – the system that broke down in the eighteenth century, under the coming of steam driven printing presses that allowed for the mass circulation of newspapers, which changed the whole consciousness of the literate class.

I am very fond of Heine. I find it important – an intersignes – that as Baudelaire was crumbling in his latter, syphilis wracked years, he wrote a scathing article about an attack made by a French journalist, Jules Janin, on Heine’s poetry. Baudelaire still had a fine sense of who was illuminated and who was in darkness as far as art went. I don’t know if Baudelaire was aware of Heine’s Lucca book. But I do think he would have recognized the style of Heine’s thought, flickering rather like a lizard’s tongue flickers, out and in, testing the air. Heine was also of course Marx’s friend, and they both liked the fine ironic style of the 1820s and 30s, which combined Hegel and the extravagances of the Grimm’s tales.

I’m feeling a little tree-like myself lately. Even stony. On this day after the ascension.