Nicola Simpson, May 2017.
Dom Sylvester Houédard’s poem, the ‘4 stages of contemplative t/writing’ was composed on the 15th June 1963. A more well-known variation of this work was published two years later in his Writers Forum pamphlet Op and kinkon poem: and some non-kinkon with the changed title ‘4 stages of spiritual t/writing’ with the ‘je’ and the ‘moi’ abstracted into dots and a lexical key provided.
Composed early in the summer of 1963, the ‘4 stages of contemplative t/writing’ is from the earliest period of Houédard’s concrete poetic experimentation, and is an excellent example of Houédard playing with the possibilities of form on his typewriter to articulate his vision and intention for developing an ‘the wider ecumenism’, an understanding of the non-verbal contemplative experiences at the heart of all the major spiritual traditions.
Houédard, like so many of his contemporary post- war avant-garde, was particularly engaged with the ideas in Buddhisms (zen and tantric) and Taoism, as meditative method practices with which to create and transform the experiential in life and art. As such this poem presents his ideas about how prayer and meditation can be used to perceive the true nature of reality and the reality of our ‘I’ (je) and our ‘me’ (moi).
Houédard often used the phrase ‘the je/moi flicker effect’ in his prose writings to discuss how what we think of as our ‘ I ‘– our je, is in actuality our moi, a persona we impute on a continually changing flux of mind experiences and mindevents. Our moi is, he writes ‘reborn in the past-future flux of the present’. The moi is reborn moment to moment in a continuum of becoming. These moments of mind however run together, very very quickly indeed. In fact they are indistinguishable, and where one begins another ends. This is the flicker effect. It is like one of those flicker books that children draw, in an attempt to animate their drawings. As the pages are flicked together quickly, a moving image is discerned: ME after a ME after a ME after a ME, creating a flicker effect of a permanently inherently existing JE. We rarely, if ever pay attention to the process.
Another Flicker –effect analogy can come from considering what is known as ‘flicker fusion’’ in the technologies that present moving images- cinema, t.v or digital video. The flicker fusion threshold is the frequency at which an intermittent light stimulus appears to be completely steady to the observer. If the frame rate falls below the flicker fusion threshold, flicker will appear to the viewer and the continuum of image is broken. This is what happens in the process of inner contemplation, or meditation or as Houédard calls it ‘mind minding’. The frames of self-projection slow down to a speed where the flicker begins to appear to the mind – What lies behind the flicker effect of this moi is je.
To get at a further understanding of what Houédard means when he alludes to the je/moi flicker effect and to explain what Houédard intends in each of the four stages of contemplation in this work, we can turn our attention to his article The Wider Ecumenism, published in The Aylesford Review in 1965. In keeping with his ‘wider ecumenical vision’ here, Houédard conflates in his use of ‘JE’ into what he calls the ostensibly Western monotheistic ‘Supreme Mind’ and the Eastern ‘all pervading Mind’:
To approach the world of zen & tantra – the world of mental events – there is only one centrally essential insight required – to recognize it notionally will give a critical base to discussion – to recognize it really is satori – […] the JE reflects on itself but can never see the JE it only sees the MOI – one further tropism is always necessary that can never be taken – the JE must be content w/ an image of itself – & as the JE is only known as the counterspace of its ikon or MOI so the creator is that wh is only known as the counterspace of its ikon ie creation – but in the cosmos man (because of his JE/MOI structure) is supremely the ikon of god & to me – out of all cosmic objects that are ikons of god – the closest & most valuable is my own MOI – the counterspace to my MOI is thus both JE & the creator – both the self & the non Self – thru the MOI I intuit 2 sacred néants or nothings ie both JE & god.
Instead of being the mistaken appearance of the persona MOI, our true JE is the counterspace of this MOI. MOI is born out of JE and returns to JE, or as Mahayana Buddhist philosophy asserts in the Heart of Wisdom Sutra:
Emptiness is not other than form; form also is not other than emptiness
Therefore to return to the ‘four stages of contemplative typewriting’ it can be seen how this work depicts visually and succinctly what Houédard meant by the JE/MOI flicker effect.
Stage one: The je & the moi appear to our mind as having a permanent and solid graspable existence. We feel that they are both part of a world of solid and permanent and graspable objects – poems/ typewriters/ full stops/monastic cells…
Stage two: Through the process of contemplation and/or prayer, the mind turning in on itself, we intuit the persona of MOI, and see our moods, minds and ideas as fleeting and impermanent. In Houédard’s words above: ‘the JE reflects on itself but can never see the JE it only sees the MOI – one further tropism is always necessary that can never be taken – the JE must be content w/ an image of itself.’
Stage three: – Houédard continues: ‘the JE must be content w/ an image of itself – & as the JE is only known as the counterspace of its ikon or MOI’. In this box therefore we have the ‘je’, the counterspace of ‘moi’, now represented by the empty space on the page previously occupied by ’moi’.
Stage four: Houédard concludes: ‘out of all cosmic objects that are ikons of god – the closest & most valuable is my own MOI – the counterspace to my MOI is thus both JE & the creator – both the self & the non Self – thru the MOI I intuit 2 sacred néants or nothings ie both JE & god.’ At the final stage of contemplation, the emptiness of the self is realised, and the emptiness of ‘ god’ is realised too, or in other words, an apophatic intuition of that which god is not.
There can be no mistake that there exists a profound and succinct exegesis on the nature of the mind and the inner contemplative life of this Benedictine monk in this deceptively simple work.
This work is probably the first 3-dimensional form that Houédard executed successfully on his typewriter. Although his sketchbooks from the 1950s contain pencil and ink 3-D forms, there is no record of a 3-dimensional shape on a typestract before this one. This is qualified in Houédard choosing to give the poem the title ‘3-dimensional poem’.
The close reading of the ‘four stages of contemplative t/writing’ above can also provide a critical framework for a consideration of ‘3-dimensional poem’. Constructed only a few days later, it could be suggested that the geometry of this typestract is constructed out of “the empty box” of stage 4 from the ‘four stages of contemplative t/writing’.
Again, the abstraction in Houédard’s typestract could suggest a meditation on emptiness. The empty cube, with Houédard’s implementation of both broken outlines, seems to suggest the disintegration in the perception of inherently existent form that meditation aims to produce within the mind of the practitioner. The interplay of the inked forms on the page, produced by the typewriter ribbon, and the blank page they are typed upon, could suggest this interplay between form and emptiness. The subtle development of the meditative mind and its perception and understanding of form can be inferred from the interplay of the broken —— forms on the page and their relationship with the blank page itself.
This simple cube is a recurrent form in so many of Houédard’s later typestracts, and it is repeated with increasing ambition and skill throughout the years- taking on complex philosophical, phenomenological and theological meanings but perhaps nowhere else does it exist so simply and so central on the page.
la recreation de l’homme a l’image de dieu
‘la recreation de l’homme a l’image de dieu’ is a typestract dated 5th March 1969 (050369). The French title, or lexical key to the work translates into English as ‘the recreation of the man is the image of God’. Growing up on the island of Guernsey, Houédard was bilingual, and wrote all of is early poems in French; therefore it is often characteristic to see his ideas, even in much later works, expressed in this language too.
This typestract is another wonderful example of Houédard’s ‘contemplative typewriting’ and frequently re-visited conceptual theme of the ‘empty box’, here represented with three 3-dimensional cubes. The small red cube is ‘full’ of action, overflowing in fact with an outpouring of black dashes. These do not so much symbolize ‘the recreation of the man’, but exist as the record of the actual activity of the man, the monk and artist, Houédard, bent over his Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter, in his cell at Prinknash Abbey on precisely this day – 5th March 1969. The date on a typestract is never incidental and is as important as the three letter acronym ‘dsh’.
Alongside this small red box of frenetic activity is a medium black cube, which is empty. The edges that demarcate the sides of these cubes are a combination of both solid line and broken line. These edges therefore introduce the idea of transient form and also the Eastern phenomenological understanding impermanence and emptiness.
To relate this composition to the ideas noted above, in the ‘four stages of contemplative typing’, the small full red cube of ‘moi’ (la recreation) coexists next to the empty no-thing ‘counter-space’ cube of ‘je’, however both the ‘moi’ and the ‘je’ of the man (l’homme of the work’s title) are contained within the larger no-thing cube of god (de dieu). The typestract is therefore the ‘l’image de dieu’ if we consider what Houédard wrote above: ‘the creator is that wh is only known as the counterspace of its ikon ie creation’. In other words: ‘in the cosmos man (because of his JE/MOI structure) is supremely the ikon of god’. For Houédard, God exists in the counter-space of the typestract.
This typestract is one of a sequence of poems that Houédard composed for the Swiss-Bolivian concrete poet Eugen Gomringer and that appear to be in conversation with Gomringer’s well known poem ‘silencio’. In Gomringer’s poem the repeated word ‘silencio’ takes a rectangular form around the central absence of the word ‘silencio’. Here, in Houédard’s typestract, the space in the middle of the each parallelogram is suggestive of this absence of the word ‘silencio’ but also part of a series of ‘empty’ forms and ‘empty’ boxes, initiated by the poem ‘four stages of contemplative t/writing’. The parallelogram ‘for eg’ is felt to be an interruption or a divergence from the horizontal sequence of identical forms that progress in a line below. We can locate the space it is supposed to occupy – only it isn’t there, instead occupying an unexpected location on the page. The pattern of lineation has been disrupted: an alternative spatial reading is required.
This poem is a little homage to someone Houédard felt was instrumental in the newly emerging international concrete poetry movement.