by Daniel Davies
A couple of weeks ago I found myself stood before an eleventh-century standing stone. I was at the National Museum of Scotland’s Vikings! exhibition (the exclamation mark used as shorthand for the affective enthusiasm public exhibitions are forced to elicit) and had just passed an enjoyable hour mooching around the display of brooches, skulls and shit when I found myself confronted by a gargantuan, consuming, hypnotic stone. It was a huge slab of rock just stood near the exhibition’s exit, its sheer rude mass seeming all the more confrontational when juxtaposed with the intricate interlace designs of the artefacts I’d just seen. Standing around seven feet high and four feet wide and adorned with a spiralling snake harbouring a runic inscription, memorialising an ill-fated trip to the east, the stone perplexed me greatly.
There were many things that puzzled me about this stone. Why was there a snake carrying the stone’s inscription? I could just about deal with imagining that the snake was Jörmungandr – the sea serpent from Norse legend who is so large he swallowed his own tail – but this simply aligned image with myth, rather than providing any explanation. And anyway, this stone was from post-Christian Scandinavia. How could we look on this snake without seeing the serpent from the Garden of Eden? How could we not see this lingering symbol of divine transgression? How could we not think that the words he contained pertained to some forbidden knowledge? And even if we were to stop worrying about what kind of snake it is, why on earth does it have runes all over its back? Why was the message of the standing stone mediated through a serpent? Why was this message written on a stone in the first place? Which is to say nothing of the hidden history of colonialism contained within a monument to a trade expedition ‘east’. What emerges when we attempt to apprehend the lithographic (from litho- stone, graphia- writing) significance as a whole? Can we even apprehend it as a whole? Before I was able to approach these problems, I realised they were all part of the same anxiety: this stone contained an incommensurable proliferation of temporalities, leading to a sense of acute historical vertigo. I stood before one thousand years of history and lost my balance: I was unable to attain equilibrium, I was dizzy with the flat weight of history.
I felt at least seven competing temporal narratives in this stone: the calendar date of my standing in front of the stone, sometime in May 2013; the time of the stone’s carving; the time of the event it memorialises; the time of the Christianisation of Scandinavia; the time when pagan myths held the popular imagination; the time of the actual stone itself, dwarfing all other timescales and temporalities, hewn over tens of thousands of years. No doubt if I were of a more sensitive, or trained, temperament, I could find more divisions, but as it was, seven was sufficiently striking. The proliferation of these competing narratives forces us to abandon a simple, linear sense of history. Each of these narratives is conflicted. For example, some standing stones found in Scandinavia are adorned with both the cross and the snake. This creates an almost staggering anachronism: as one belief system replaces another, the former should just fall away. We cannot accept a parity granted to two incommensurable belief systems. However, we should not be too concerned about the apparent contradiction of seeing pagan and Christian symbols intermingle; rather, we just need to adjust our temporal focus. We need only think of another example from our distant past, Beowulf, to show that the process of Christianisation was not a simple, linear progression and that different and apparently contradictory belief systems can exist side by side, equal parts of a complex narrative. We only run into trouble when we seek to reduce such complexity to a simple, linear story: Beowulf is the story of pagans; the standing stone shows us a Christian society memorialising their dead.
The time of this stone is out of joint: a riot of temporality greets us as we stare at the stone and attempt to join together these disparate narratives. The narrative which is most out of joint, however, is that of the stone itself. The presence of the stone forces us to confront what Benjamin termed the ‘tremendous abbreviation’ [ungeheueren Abbreviatur] that humanity consists of when taken as part of the history of the world. We are all familiar with the thought experiment that if the history of the world were a twenty-four hour clock, Homo sapiens would make a cameo appearance during the last two seconds of the final hour, but it is nevertheless startling to see this history so clearly juxtaposed as in the lithographia of the standing stone. The standing stone is an enjoinment of lithic and human history: the humans who carved on the stone’s surface, who commissioned the monument, and who were the actors responsible for the actions deemed worthy of memorialisation, endowed in this rock a huge amount of trust. They appended to the greater arc of the stone’s history their own and sought to appropriate a lithic permanence for their own ends. However, as Jeffrey Cohen argues in the preface to his forthcoming Stories of Stone, ‘stone does not carry stories passively forward, a compliant surface for inscription.’ Instead, ‘stone is always entangled in the narratives it yields: as spur, as ally, as provocative and complicit agency.’ Consequently, we must add the voice of the stone itself to the polyphony of narratives we have already encountered. We cannot focus our energies on attempting to decode the human meaning on the surface of the stone, but must rather bring to bear a critical approach which would allow us move beyond what anthropologist Tim Ingold has termed the ‘condensed stories’ of the physical world (which ‘exists in and for itself’) and towards the environment (‘a world that continually unfolds in relation to the beings that make a living there … a world of materials’). That is to say, if we listen properly, the stone can reveal a far richer and complex story than simply acting as a memento mori for our forbearers.
I have not given anywhere near a full account of the mesh of agencies, temporalities and narratives present in the standing stone I saw. I have not even provided a translation of its inscription (I don’t know it), a description of the materiality of the rock itself (I don’t know it), or even a photograph of it (stood before it, I knew I would regret not taking a photograph, yet despite the smartphone in my pocket, something held me back). As it is, whole new vistas of knowledge I don’t have and don’t have the means to acquire seem to be opening up before me. I will embrace this, though, and hope that you will too. I will also embrace Wallace Stevens’ knotty little poem, ‘Man Carrying Thing’:
The poem must resist the intelligence
Almost successfully. Illustration:
A brune figure in winter evening resists
Identity. The thing he carries resists
The most necessitous sense. Accept them, then,
As secondary (parts not quite perceived
Of the obvious whole, uncertain particles
Of the certain solid, the primary free from doubt,
Things floating like the first hundred flakes of snow
Out of a storm we must endure all night,
Out of a storm of secondary things),
A horror of thoughts that suddenly are real.
We must endure our thoughts all night, until
The bright obvious stands motionless in cold.
The standing stone is the bright obvious, this time a thing carrying man: across centuries it has stood motionless in cold, as different forces of history and agency have worked themselves upon it. What we stand before is an arch poem, the vertigo of history presenting us with a figure resisting identity; our attempts to bring the stone within our framework of understanding fail – it will always elude our comprehension, resisting assimilation into becoming another signpost on a linear progression to the twenty-first century. The stone speaks to us ‘of the certain solid, the primary free from doubt’, and we must learn to listen.