Or the Perilous Pertinence of Perspicacity Premeditated

(Or Exercises in Applied Floccinaucinihilipilificatiousness)

John Howe writes: I’m often told I’ve got my “head in the clouds”. While that’s clearly metaphorical, or at least I dearly hope so, I recently had the opportunity to get a little closer to said clouds for a television interview.

Têtes en l’Air” is a French-Swiss program half way between interview and conversation. The creator of the show, Manuella Maury, seems to prepare extensive notes, read up diligently on her subject, and then play everything by ear, counting on an agile mind rather than a plodding list of questions. Which is fair enough, though it does mean trying to keep your wits about you.

I always try to keep them about me when doing interviews, but given the surroundings, my wits were off running up scree slopes or poking around under rocks. I’m always distabilised by interviews, just the fact that someone is actually listening throws me off (even if it’s professional listening) and I spend my time like a tightrope walker in a tempest, buffeted by contrary winds.

But, no matter. Stability is over-rated anyway. Nor do I ever prepare interviews. (How can you prepare something like that anyway? It’s not an exam.) Spontaneity, however is never over-rated, so trading a little certitude for an equal measure of the extemporaneous is a fair exchange. How I wish I could have all this on the tip of my tongue, how I wish I could pull out savvy sound bites of cleverness and wisdom from my top hat like so many magical white rabbits, but my tongue is more often tied than silver.

Finding the right words is always a struggle, which is likely the explanation as to why pictures are the trade at hand. Narrative pictures. I stumbled on a VERY early sketchbook of mine a few years ago, and ALL the imagery (with the exception of the stock catalogue – responses to either teacher’s assignments or peer group requests) has stories contained within. As if there was a lot to be said, but no words for it. Or not the right ones. Or simply not significant ones.


Which explains why I never prepare for interviews. The search for the significant word is too important. Saying things you know makes about as much sense as only drawing what you know. Substance, not rhetoric is what it’s all about. It’s not stumping or plea bargaining, or the corridor of the upper house. If words are hard to find, then I want to remember my way when I do find them.

Also, talking out of doors is difficult. There’s just too much to look at. Too many avenues of thought that lead not to words but to silence.

Above the tree line the landscape is purely mineral. Scale vanishes, and with it the notion of self, as inner triangulation (the constant surveyor inside us that places us in the middle of our immediate environment) is no longer possible. Or rather, no longer relevant. Suddenly, detail is constant, whether 3 miles or three feet away. This dichotomy of dislocated distance is a source of abiding fascination. (The only plant that thrives at high altitude is the amaranth*.) Rocks have no scale, until we place ourselves in the picture. While this constitutes an agreable challenge in terms of depiction, and allows the transposition of disproportion so handy in fantasy, it is equally a factor that places the observer in the picture by necessity rather than by design. Less creatures of narrative than elements of scale. Ever noticed that in early landscapes? How often the human figures are empty of all story, simply there as representatives of proportional dimensions? If there is an action, the background might as well be a painted backdrop, the interaction between the two is non-existant, as if a telephoto lens and a wide-angle could be used in the same snapshot. (Considering that photography put an end to all that, it does say a considerable amount about how we view the world now.)

As if the landscape of the sublime not only needs no words, it empties the mind of them. Either that or the two are blackbirded aboard the good ship Allegory, where, afer a time in the cramped, dark hold, indenture in the land of Kitsch seems almost like freedom.

All very Romantic that, very 18th-century. Funny how there is no modern landscape, just constant reminders that we have modern eyes.

The same thing happened in Têtes en l’Air. Two irreconcilable notions face to face. Impossible to assume my allotted role as a graduated value empty of narrative, impossible to field questions without ignoring the sublime everywhere present.


With a borrowed cap to shield my eyes, I do a sketch. It’s not a good sketch at all. The scribbling is too hurried, too imprecise. Nevertheless, it serves to focus on the landscape itself, and remains a reminder of the insufficiency of short-shrifting observation or delegating a good look to other means of recalling the view. I take photos, but they are not very good, or certainly not as sharp as the memory I have of the scene. Every scribble is humbled and reduced to insiginificance by the subject itself. No transcendence of graphite and paper to be found here, just a shorthand reminder of fast-enough fading memory. That along with the knowledge of not having managed to say what I wanted either.

Floccinaucinihilipilification of ego is decidely a high-altitude affair. Going up a mountain brings you down a notch or two. But, you can see that for yourselves here in the Moving Pictures section. Despite finding all the right things to say only by the following day, I had a splendid time.

The antidote to insignificance is to have company. It takes the edge off Occam’s razor and makes every horizon a story. Every time I’m anywhere with anyone, things always seem different. I always want to take them by the shoulders, grin and say, like Viola does in the Twelth Night “What country, friends, is this?”

*not talking botany here, but of the imaginary flower that never fades