One thousand and one descriptors for the undescribable



Jean-Baptiste Berthelin,
CNRS-LIMSI.

en français


initially published in Æsthetica Nova numéro 2, 1991.




(A similar topic is discussed by Philippe Hamon).



    Day before yesterday, a guest who helped me plan my next exhibition insisted that I should see my pictures and consider their texture. Basically, I do not care much for texture, I take it as it flows, I am never doing any preliminary work on pigments or whatever.

    Still, it must count. Let us see it with Pictagores. Here we have Pictagore # 5, rather than a definition.

typographic pictagore

    Where do Pictagores come from? They illustrate an old truth, or perhaps, they reflect it: Pythagore cannot have designed his well-known table the way we see it now. One thing we know for sure: the modern use of zero was unavailable to him. One thing we can guess: many Pythagorean tables were written in Roman numbers.

    Someone truly naive would just do so, write a table in Roman numbers "and see what happens", but what would happen? Numbers would be interpreted by a compelling automatism:

  V X XV XX XXV XXX XXXV XL
yield 5 10 15 20 25 30 35 40


which amounts to nothing. To feel the texture of the Pythagore of old times, you must keep the syntax of Roman numerals, while disposing of the too obvious semantics by which "V" = "five" = "5" and so on.

    Now a well-known method for eliminating semantics is to mask meanings. The same naive person could produce this awkward Pictagore:

this Gif Orsay Laplace Gif-Robinson Robinson
is Orsay Gif-Robinson Robinson-Gif Robinson-Laplace Antony
not Laplace Robinson-Gif Gif-Antony Antony-Orsay Antony-Robinson
a Gif-Robinson Robinson-Laplace Antony-Orsay Antony-Gif Orly
Pictagore    Robinson Antony Antony-Robinson    Orly Orly-Robinson


where meanings are indeed masked, but in a nondescript way. One could repair things: Gif could be represented by any Chinese ideogram, Orsay would be a horse feeding on hay, Robinson an island, and so on. But there are simpler ways. When designing a pictogram, the only thing that counts is the contrast. When Rimbaud says black A, white E, red I, green U, blue O, he relies upon some everyday experience according to which a vowel differs from its neighbour as much as a colour does. In other cultures, you would find A duck, E horse, I lion, U cow, O whale or perhaps A turnip, E bean, I sunflower, U cabbage, O pumpkin; anything goes.

    In the Pictagore situation, we must consider many numerals, at least I, II, III, V, X, XX, XXX, L and C, totalling nine. This could yield a solution using three shapes, along with three colours. As V and L play a special role, we use a fourth shape, and and also a fourth colour.

    We obtain a minimalistic pictagore, which is number 4 in the series. Why number four, and not "one"? Just because of some trouble we have with minimalism. Simplicity is no virtue for a pictogram. As Wittgenstein would have it, a cat has the shape of a cat, which does not mean that geometry provides us with a special shape, whose name would be "cat shape". Similarly, in pictograms, I would rather use a sausage than a square. That is because a sausage can be distorted in many ways, while remaining a sausage (a not purely graphic concept). A square, however, once elongated, becomes a rectangle.

    That gives us half the rules of the game, not the most interesting ones. These rules tell us how to generate a Cochonfucius (or even an if-she-dares ) to show, by other means, a more or less shocking fact, here: present Pythagorean tables look like nothing Pythagore could have seen.

    One last remark: such rules have no explanatory function. Quite to the contrary, they have a puzzling effect, going against the interpretive customs of the observer.

* * *



    So why does one have to sabotage interpretive automatisms? We live among walls, not only "between four walls" but among plenty of walls. Well, if they could be opened at leisure, if we could cover them with live chamaeleons, but we do nothing of the sort. We install things against them: hat-racks, shelves, cupboards, mirrors, computers and so on. A present-day Archimedes, who prudently remains unnamed, discovered wallpaper. What if Pictagore # 5 would have been wallpaper?

typographic wallpaper

    Almost nothing is changed. If shapes and colours were used, one could say (to no great avail) that wallpaper is "more comforting" and a pictagore is "more disquieting". One could as well have it the other way round. Let us consider 23450/9999 and Pi.

23450/9999 = 2,3452345234523452345234523452345234523452345234523452 ...

Pi = 3,141592653589723238426 ...


    Which is comforting? Which is disquieting? One would complain if a wall lets through the noises of the city. Not so, if one has to stay in a prison cell for twenty years. So we expect many things from our walls. At least, our prehistoric ancestors, deep in their caves, found a thousand and one irregularities of the wall. In the dim light of burned bear fat, those irregularities grew into a thousand and one living shapes. We, however, are supposed to live between bare walls. Wallpaper may come to mind. One can also try wise sayings, like you find some in the house of the Dionysian Carmelite nuns: As we begin to learn, we find it is too late.

    These two styles are supposed to be serious. They are, indeed. But there is a price to be paid. That is not comforting. Let us examine their flaws. Wallpaper is neutral, without any content in excess. It is like in a restaurant, where they would give the customer a beautiful plate along with silverware, only to tell him that food is a nuisance, be it for silver or for china. It can soil them. It is esthetically inappropriate. So, please let us not mention food. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the mural inscription, speaking so brutally, is like having a poster in the restaurant's toilets, saying that paper is a crucial resource, which one should try not to waste. Also, it would be esthetically unappropriate to soil paper with vile matters. Therefore, the customer is urged to use his own hands, for reasons similar to those which prevented the cook to fill his plate.

    My pictographic work relies upon a rejection of both esthetic systems, one being too refined, the other too crude. This does not mean that I cannot produce pictures of some refinement, or crudeness. I can coin aphorisms which sound harder than the Carmelitan ones (This place, the madman says, it has but three exits: madness and death, inspired by René Daumal); I can also produce some kind of wallpaper for the garden. What I am looking for is an echo between these two voices. Let us have another aphorism: A week without reading Confucius is a miserable week (from a Chinese proverb).

    How do I avoid having the sentence flatly exposed on a wall, like an appeal to the conservation of paper in te restaurant's toilets? That is easily done. We find the picture of a modest Chinese (or Manchu) herdsman, and try to paste the sentence over his head. Surprisingly, the sentence appears to be pronounced, not by the man, but by his camel. Well done! we do not have flat "philosophy in comics", we have something better. But what is it ? I do not know for sure.

Undescribable by Berthelin



    What happens when the camel emits an opinion about Confucius? Let us have another example.

    Listening to the singer Brassens, you can hear Louis Aragon's prodigious poem And love can never be happy, in which he says since for him Life is but a strange and a painful divorce, and also I carry you along as if you were a suffering bird, and other, quite moving verses. Now let us consult the Archives du surréalisme:

André Breton : To which extent does Aragon consider that an erection is necessary when having sex?

Louis Aragon : A certain amount of erection is necessary. As far as I am concerned, I have only incomplete erections.

André Breton : Do you find it is a pity?

Louis Aragon : It is like every physical inconvenience, but nothing more than that. I am not suffering more about it than about being unable to lift a piano.


    So I remembered other beautiful verses like Nothing ever belongs to Man, neither his strength nor his weakness and even No love ever exists but making us wither, and I felt amused (as a Brassens fan) and perplexed (as a researcher asking himself about humour). In this last stance, here is my conjecture: humour is efficient when an obvious or important fact (as found in the poem) is corroborated by something less brilliant and universal than expected. So Fritz Zorn, in Mars, says theologians are right, they just have to make their God evolve from all-embracing to parochial, from infinitely benevolent to paranoid, from almighty to extremely weak.

    In Cochonfucean terms: the emperor's new clothes mean a naked emperor, stinking garments, borrowed ones, clothing that even you could afford. Thus, humour rescues us from idolatry.