The Depiction of Dissemination

Joseph Wright of Derby’s A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery in which a lamp is put in place of the sun (1766) in relation to the opening scene of Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

Joseph Wright of Derby – A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery in which a lamp is put in place of the sun (c.1764-1766) Oil on canvas, Derby Museum and Art Gallery.

A. From the mid-1760s onwards, Joseph Wright of Derby produced a number of dramatically lit scenes depicting scientific experiment and demonstration, at that time wholly original choices of subject matter. Wright’s decision to paint such scenes was quite conscious and deliberate, reflecting the compelling mix of art, science and philosophy that encapsulated much about the artist’s life, interests and outlook. Wright had previously gained a good reputation and made a decent living through portrait and landscape commissions, yet was never satisfied with these activities alone. Such generic subjects were not highly regarded and a sustained focus on them was not considered a particularly highbrow vocation. Instead it was a form of History painting that was held in highest esteem in Wright’s time – grand works that incorporated religious, literary and classical themes. By turning his attention to the latest scientific discoveries and the individual luminaries who were making and disseminating them, Wright made an attempt to place his work (and theirs) into another grand history that was just being written. His prescience was remarkable; he realised early on the significance of many of the developments happening all around him in that burgeoning Age of Reason and knew, furthermore, that his treatment of them could further underwrite their importance.

As well Caravaggio, an acknowledged master of chiaroscuro, Wright is also associated with a number of Dutch painters renowned for similarly rendered lighting effects, particularly those produced by candlelight: Gerrit von Honthhorst, Godfrie Schalken and Hendrick Terbrugghen.

Wright employed striking techniques of chiaroscuro in his depiction of Enlightenment science, technology and industrialisation.1 His lifelong preoccupation with light was always accompanied by his keen interest in other mechanical, analytical and philosophical studies, which he had maintained throughout his middle-class upbringing. Crucial to Wright’s engagement with the latest developments in science and technology, however, was his relation and geographical proximity to the epicentre of the Industrial Revolution. He counted as friends, acquaintances, and indeed patrons, many members of the Birmingham-based ‘Lunar Society’, a group of intellectuals and prominent cultural figures devoted to the study and celebration of scientific enquiry and innovation. The regular meetings of the Society, scheduled around the phases of the moon, would focus on cutting edge experiments and current debates concerning developments in a variety of fields, ranging from chemistry, medicine, cosmology and engineering. Wright’s contacts with figures such as Dr. Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles), the industrialists and steam innovators Matthew Boulton and James Watt, the chemist Joseph Priestley and the ceramicist Josiah Wedgwood, informed his thinking and artistic direction. Wright was a painter fully embedded in the world of intellectual investigation and invention, yet his interest was not only in the depiction of new ideas or even the lofty roles played by thinkers and philosophers. In addition to his portrayals of Natural Scientists and alchemists, Wright produced a series of canvases focusing on smithies and forges, showing heroic craftsmen toiling in their workshops. His passion for the depiction of dramatic light effects, used so effectively in heightening the drama of intellectual and physical achievements, also drew him to subjects such as Mount Vesuvius, firework displays, and explorations of the effects of moonlight on cloud.

One of his most celebrated works, A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery in which a lamp is put in place of the sun (first exhibited in 1766), depicts a group of figures carefully positioned around a large orrery.

2 An orrery is a manufactured device, usually driven by clockwork, which models the motions of the solar system. Planets and their satellites are seen to move about a stationary sun, which is itself often replaced by a temporary light source. The interrelating movements of the Earth, Moon, Sun (and further planets) could demonstrate phenomena such as day and night, the seasons, lunar phases and eclipses. The devices are named in reference to Charles Boyle, the fourth Earl of Orrery, who commissioned and purchased one of the first devices built by John Rowley in about 1713. A number of similar planetary mechanisms have existed since antiquity. Richard of Wallingford (1292–1336) is said to have designed a sophisticated equatorium named ‘Albion’ that could calculate lunar, solar and planetary longitudes. Unlike most equatoria, the Albion could also predict eclipses. In the 1770s, the lecturer Adam Walker developed a large transparent orrery known as a Eidourian, a form of projection device with which he would conduct public lectures – one of the first attempts to fuse educational material with forms of popular entertainment. Crucially, orreries are devices used for demonstration rather than discovery (compare this with an astrolabe, for example). As well as communicating the pleasures of scientific inquiry, they could be used to emphasise different forms of authority according to different social settings. An orrery could be used prominently visible or it could be made to fade into the background. As opposed to more ‘philosophical’ machines, which were considered to be unmediated transmitters of God’s messages (such as the air pump), an orrery would function by holding back its presence, still “using artifice to display a doctrine about nature” but in such a way that it made that doctrine seem inevitable and authoritative. (Schaffer 1994, 157) Orreries would also serve to render the gestures of their ‘demonstrators’ tacit, especially as their use required much training and no small degree of targeted theatrical showmanship.

A Natural Philosopher, standing at the back dressed in a colourful academic-like robe with red sleeves, is seen using this device to impart information about the nature of the solar system to a small audience. Rising above the orrery, there is a dome of metal strips projecting the relative axes of the Sun and the surrounding planets. A number of ivory planets can be seen attached to brass wires, which are connected by long cords to a series of collars moving around a central pivot. Immediately to the left of a child silhouetted in the foreground, we see the interlinked Earth and Moon. Orreries such as this were often used in the popular scientific demonstrations that often toured the country during the 18th  Century. Lecturers in natural philosophy would offer courses and presentations on the most up-todate discoveries in physics, optics, chemistry, electricity and magnetism. Wright almost certainly attended many such lectures, including a series conducted by James Ferguson in Derby in July 1764, based on a previous publication concerning ‘Mechanics, Hydrostatics, Pneumatics and Astronomy’. Many itinerant lecturers such as Ferguson would also present private lectures in the homes of well-to-do families, bringing the most advanced thinking in the civilised world to the doorstep of those with means. These activities would feed into a more general cultural shift concerning the nature of science and its engagement with the wider world, as emerging scientists moved away from speculative philosophy to more formalised and rigorous procedures such as collecting specimens and conducting controlled laboratory experiments.3

“Featuring orreries, prisms, microscopes, and many other instruments, the courses attracted both men and women from elite society. A peculiarly English phenomenon was the emergence of itinerant lecturers who circulated the larger provincial towns such as Bath, Bristol and Derby, bringing the fashionable knowledge of science into the homes of well-heeled rural residents.” (Terpak 2002, 176-177)

Developing alongside advances in technology and increasing audience sizes, these public lectures became increasingly elaborate. Their educational scope soon combined with all forms of theatrical showmanship and trickery so as to become closer to magic shows and circus spectacles. Although these activities quickly became profitable, their focus was predominantly on the popularization and increased accessibility of knowledge – finding ways to turn the announcement of new information into instructive and worthwhile entertainments. This period of great development was supported by a general inclination to better disseminate and propagate scientific and technical knowledge, both to promote invention and to explore how that knowledge was then applied to society at large – and paintings such as those by Joseph Wright would be instrumental in this.

Apart from the central area around the orrery, Wright’s scene is cast in darkness, as if the artist’s first thought was to acknowledge a base metaphor for the Age of Enlightenment, contrasting the emanations of knowledge and understanding against the pervading gloom of ignorance and the prejudices of times past. As always with Wright’s paintings, the scientific equipment is meticulously reproduced. Technical accuracy was of particular importance for him in his work, as was a precise portrayal of costume and setting. His intention was to be faithfully authentic in relation to the otherwise unfamiliar and complex processes and methodologies he sought to simulate and reproduce. The paintings themselves had to be precise in order to engage the viewer on a similar (though obviously distinct) level to the demonstrations or experiences they represented. This is a key observation: Wright’s paintings were in themselves informative; they too sought to connect with a pedagogical function in some way. They not only showed how knowledge was disseminated but also the actual specificities of that knowledge – Wright showed real equipment, accurately rendered experiments, almost verifiable results – he sought an illustrative authority that would give his paintings scientific import in themselves. Yet, crucially, this was only a partial  authenticity, perhaps consciously emphasized by Wright himself, as he concealed details through the use of dramatic shadow, deliberate blockages and occlusions (ellipses and eclipses), throughout many of his ‘demonstrations of demonstrations’.

This concerns processes mediated by technology – in the case of Wright's painting this involves the orrery as well as the tools of representation he has employed in the production of the work. He evokes an effective transmission  of an experience – mostly via the reactions of the characters depicted – by way of his facility with the technology of painting. The ‘technical’ here not only suggests machinery and equipment, of course, but the application of acquired knowledge (scientific or otherwise) for practical purposes: it is the technological ‘dissemination of depiction’ as well as the depiction of dissemination. In this sense Wright’s painting is engineered to elicit a certain kind of response – it both shows  learning and performs  learning; it is tied in with its own reciprocal involvement with the continuing development of ideas Wright has seen emerging in his immediate vicinity and in his own lifetime.

Of course, we can imagine how many of the specifics of any demonstration of the known solar system, and its subsequent depiction, might have looked like in the mid-1760s. Around this period, the number of planetary bodies would seem particularly lessened in relation to today. It would not be until 1781 that Herschel would discover Uranus – and not until six years later that its moons, Titania and Oberon, would be added – and Neptune was not located until 1846. Pluto, the nominal planet, would come later still. Of course, this is always the case, as more and more new information about the universe is discovered alongside technological advancement, but it shows how the orrery demonstration Wright captures is very much a moment in time and always already an indication of the limits of human knowledge.

Wright’s depiction of the group of figures surrounding the orrery is also very particular. Made up of three men, a woman and three children, the small audience does not appear to be scholarly, but instead drawn from the middle classes. Their reactions are subtly different, ranging from rapt attention and wonder to contemplative and even morose reflection. Wright’s expert use of light and shadow skillfully emphasises these contrasting reactions to the lesson being received. He effectively charts the durational unfolding of transforming perception, as each figure and the collective tries to assess its place in the universe and the nature of humanity’s position in the natural order. It should be remembered that lectures such as these were often specifically designed to elicit such profound responses, encouraging both rational thought and religious awe in light of the ‘true’ structural vision of God’s universe. The figures are grouped together like planets and their satellites. In fact Wright does not pass up the opportunity to convey particular aspects of the scientist’s lecture in the manner in which he deals with the faces of the audience, as they clearly imitate the phases of the moon – new, half, gibbous, first and last quarter – emphasizing the link between the earthly and the celestial, as well as making reference to human mortality and the relative insignificance of human life spans in relation to cosmic time. The members of polite society we see have to contemplate the ‘world machine’ and their newly revealed place within it. Their responses, when put in this context, are not so surprising. The younger man on the right puts his hand to his brow, as if deep in contemplation about the implications of the vast scale or intricate beauty of the solar system. The Philosopher appears to point toward him, as if highlighting the profundity of the effect his words are having. He in turn seems perturbed or distracted by the man taking notes to his right, as if he were stalled in the midst of an elucidation or having to account for the effects that his demonstration are having on his audience. Or could it be that Wright intends another, more subtle reference to processes of transcription – perhaps implanting doubts into the Philosopher’s mind concerning the consequences of translating personal appearances into written tracts (either for commercial purposes or for ease of distribution) or the inevitable trajectory between verbal lectures, note taking and the published volumes seen on the bookshelves at the back of the room.

Many of the figures in Wright’s painting have been provisionally identified. The man taking notes is thought to be the cartographer and draughtsman Peter Perez Burdett, a close friend and associate of Wright. It seems likely that he represents a particularly attentive and already learned attendee, illustrating a thirst for detailed knowledge and the desire to absorb details with unerring accuracy. It has also been suggested that the older man on the right is Lord Ferrers, who owned (and possibly built) the orrery Wright depicts, and who first bought the completed painting in 1766. The figure of the Philosopher himself, arguably the most dominant figure in the painting, is thought to have been modeled, at least in part, on Sir Isaac Newton.4

Joseph Wright of Derby – An Experiment with a Bird in an Air Pump (1768), oil on canvas, National Gallery, London. 

Joseph Wright of Derby – Portrait of John Whitehurst (c. 1782-83), oil on canvas, private collection
4 (cf. Egerton 1990) Although the references to Newton could well be deliberate – his celebrated treatise on the laws of universal gravtation had been published in 1687; he died forty years later – it has also been suggested that the figure of the Philosopher is ased upon Wright’s friend, the geologist John Whitehurst. Wright had portrayed Whitehurst previously and it may be that he (or indeed Newton again) features in another of Wright’s most celebrated paintings of a science-based subject: An Experiment with a Bird in an Air Pump from 1768.

Completed two years after of A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery in which a lamp is put in place of the sun, this painting presents a more ambiguous representation of the benefits, methods and morals of the dawning scientific age. Instead of the admiring way in which the Natural Philosopher figure is seen in the former painting, he is here portrayed in an uncertain role, conducting an experiment that involves denying air to a live bird. It is clear in Wright’s painting that the spectacle is upsetting for many of the audience members and the forthright gaze of the scientist, as he looks straight out of the painting toward the viewer, suggests that he is making an appeal in relation to his power over another creature. Wright seems willing to beg the question asto the reasoning behind this demonstration of imminent death and the graphic means employed to engender a realisation of universal mortality. A similar experiment to convey the same principals could be conducted using what is known as a ‘lungs glass’, a mechanical instrument that contracts to form a vacuum, Yet Wright’s subject, and indeed the experiment’s subject, is a dramatically contorted and illuminated cockatoo.

The demonstration of the solar system would no doubt have involved an exposition of Newtonian laws of universal gravitation, showing how the universe fitted together according to an ordered, harmonious system that not only confirms God’s existence but makes his omnipotence manifest.

Yet it seems equally plausible to suggest that another figure in Wright’s composition plays the most crucial role: in the foreground, the young boy with his back to us – thought to be Wright’s nephew, Laurence Shirley – takes on the ‘role’ of the eclipse.

In order to demonstrate solar eclipses, as evidenced in Wright’s own depiction, the brass ball of the Sun is replaced by a candle, most likely made up of a lamp wick set in a jar of oil.5

Joseph Wright of Derby – A Girl Reading a Letter by Candlelight with a Young Man Peering Over her Shoulder (c.1760-62), oil on canvas, private collection

George de la Tour – The Young Singer (c.1645), oil on canvas, Leicester City Museum

Georges de la Tour – The Dice Players (c.1651), oil on canvas, Preston Hall Museum, Stockton on Tees.

Georges de la Tour – St. Joseph in the Carpenter’s Shop (1642), oil on canvas, Musée du Louvres, Paris.

Georges de la Tour – St. Joseph in the Carpenter’s Shop (detail) (1642), oil on canvas, Musée du Louvres, Paris.
5 In many of Wright’s candlelit paintings, including that based on the orrery demonstration, the candle flame is deliberately obscured. It appears to be a common feature of this style of painting, yet in that case in particular this technique is harnessed to further underline the theme and nature of the solar eclipse, extending the artist’s metaphor concerning the accessibility of knowledge and understanding in relation to the human condition. The real subject of such a painting, it could be argued, is the effect of the occlusion of ‘light’, where this word functions as a particularly loaded metaphor. The painterly device immediately frames the more general theme of human endeavour and scientific discovery (light) in a context of pervading ignorance (darkness), by way of an indirect perspective – a route that suggests ignorance can always be returned to and that understanding need always be seen in the context of the unknown in order for its effects to be fully understood. The shielding of the candle flame deflects the viewer’s attention from any concentrated source of light – as well as the cause of specific phenomenon in the ‘narrative’ of the orrery painting, for example – allowing Wright to better emphasise the effects of ‘illumination’.

In one of Wright’s earliest paintings of a candlelit scene, A Girl Reading a Letter by Candlelight with a Young Man Peering Over her Shoulder (c.1760-62), the flame of the illumining candle is shielded by the sheet of paper in the young subject’s hand. The result is a degree of transparency that can be compared with other examples of this technique by Wright and others – we can see great variety in the levels of opacity, as light is tested against different forms of matter. Blocking off these details through various compositional devices or otherwise not allowing the naked flame to be seen, is a trait that Wright shares with a number of other artists, including the French Baroque painter Georges de la Tour (1593–1652). The Dice Players, a late painting by La Tour from around 1651, would even appear to be a direct influence on the style and composition of A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery in which a lamp is put in place of the sun. The same radial composition dominates, as a variety of figures are carefully positioned around a single light source. The canvas shows off la Tour’s powerful technique, which is especially visible in his depiction of light hitting the surface of a wooden table, the polished metal of breastplates and the textures of clothing.

John Berger paints an unflattering portrait of La Tour as an arrogant, greedy and violent war profiteer – a marked contradiction to his usual 20th Century presentation as a painter famed for his portrayals of simplicity and humanist reverence (with subjects such as beggars, saints and ascetics). In particular, Berger draws a contrast between La Tour and Caravaggio, suggesting that the latter is always involved in his scenes, delving into the worlds of those he lived among. La Tour, by contrast, held himself back, remaining at a remove for the purpose of what Berger calls “self-preservation.” (Berger 2009, 114) More interestingly however, Berger suggests that in his paintings of card-players and tricksters, La Tour’s paintings “reveal no psychological insight [and] the interest is schematic. “La Tour, I believe, saw the whole of life as a scheme over which nobody on earth had any control, a scheme revealed in prophecy and the scriptures […] where people are transformed into ciphers. Yet the total faith of the Middle Ages has gone. Scientific observation has begun. The individuality of the thinker and artist cannot be brushed aside or undone. Consequently the painter cannot simply submit to a God-given iconography. He must invent. Yet if he accepts such a view of the world (the world as unquestionable scheme) the only way he can invent is by imitating God, modestly and piously, within the small domain of his art. Accepting the world as scheme, he makes his own harmonious visual schemes out of it.” (Berger 2009, 115) La Tour could aim to compose his own specific moments / scenarios of constructed order; in his art he could achieve a harmony of simple schemes, where the unimaginable scale of the universe could be reduced to bare essentials.

In many of these paintings, the shielded candle flame appears like a gesture of intimacy (that, crucially, is not directed outward, or that does not let the viewer into it), as well as a gesture of privation. Yet it can also serve as an indication of fragility and vulnerability, occasionally revealing the transience of existence through degrees of transparency, capturing corporeal presence through a particular treatment of flesh. At the same time it can institute a kind of embedded, inaccessible volume within the painting that somehow withdraws its provenance – we are not permitted to gaze upon that which makes the vision possible: that principal of light that stands in for both divine and Godless creation. Such a crucial element of the painting, and the contained depiction, becomes separated from us. Instead we are left with a black hole that both attracts and repels us at the same time.

The French poet Francis Ponge describes the candle as a “singular plant” that is revived at night. He also describes how moths are attracted to its glow: “instantly singed or knocked out / of battle, they simmer on the verge of a frenzy akin to stupor. / But the candle, in flickering across the book and brusquely dissipating the original smokiness, encourages the reader – then bends over its dish and drowns in its food.” (‘The Candle’ – Ponge 2000, 19) With remarkable economy of means, Ponge establishes connections between the candle’s tender flame – its spine wick always soon to fall away from softening muscle, always set to extinguish itself – book learning, the furious desire for the acquisition of knowledge, and the ever present threat of darkness returning.

Here the candle’s illumination becomes all consuming in the sense that there is no other light source. There is no open door or window through which natural light may creep in; no other rooms are suggested. Consequently, some of the surrounding figures – specifically the young girl whose pointing hand penetrates the orrery’s ‘shell’ and the young couple sat opposite each other (could it be that this pair – positioned a universe apart, as it were – are in some way connected?) – seem mesmerised by this isolated point of illumination. The figures circle this singularity point as if around a campfire or a television set. Yet it is only these three figures that can be said to be looking directly at the point we cannot see – the occluded focus that marks the middle of the canvas. Although nothing of its actual flame is made visible, we can see an inverted and curtailed reflection of the candle in the curved near-edge of the orrery’s base. Instead we focus on the figures seeing the candle for us.

Our emissaries, then, are shown being subjected to lessons that amount to rational, spiritual and moral improvement. It is worth asking whether Wright’s depiction serves to expand upon or disrupt distinctions between teacher and pupil, or whether he seeks to contrast a mechanical vision of the universe with a more poetic one. As well as being an favourable and optimistic representation of science and its benefits to mankind, A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery in which a lamp is put in place of the sun  also engages with its own role in this developing world of technological advance – its address is very much to the capabilities and techniques of painting in the dissemination of new ideas – even if it has to look to classical models (or proven dramatic tropes such as chiaroscuro) in order to best present them. Wright’s painting is itself a demonstration device, not only of the artist’s individual admiration for the practice of science and the manner in which its discoveries can be delivered to the people, but also in terms of a more fundamental and poetic reflection on the implications of new insights into the workings of the universe. It is an acknowledgement of the theoretical beauty of natural laws, made specifically in relation to the making and receiving of images  of knowledge.

Wright’s painting is a record of reception. It displays listening, witnessing, conceptualizing and the processing of information in ways that are explicit and deliberate. It conveys a period of ‘sinking in’ and, in doing so, captures the both the illumination of learning and the darkly enduring context of the unknown.

B. The opening sequence of Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) begins with a small, enclosed stove fire being put out with water. The camera lingers on this act of extinguishing for a moment before rising and revealing a rural barroom tavern situated on the plains of Hungary.6

Still from Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky (1979)
6 The film is co-written by Tarr and Lázló Krasznahorkai, the author of The Melancholy of Resistance (1989), the novel on which it is based. From the book we know that the establishment is known as “Pfeffer and Co., Licensed Victuallers of Híd Road”, also known as the “Peafeffer” (Krasznahorkai 1989, 65). The layout of the bar in Tarr’s film, including the way it is initially framed, are reminiscent of the café-bar featured in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker (1979), where a trio of figures – ‘Stalker’, ‘Writer’ and ‘Professor’ – convene ahead of their treacherous excursion into The Zone. The prominence of a such a ‘trinity’ of characters could hold significance, as we shall see, but it could also possible be to suggest links to Luger, the barman in Stalker, having trouble with a malfunctioning light – another potential metaphor for the uncertainty of understanding and the potential for existing knowledge to come apart. Further comparisons between Tarr and Tarkovsky could be numerous: their use of long durations, balletic zooms and pans, and so on.

This simple action – cancelling light / warmth and moving on – functions as if one scenario is stopped in order for another to take place: a reset, one light going out and another coming on. It also operates as a way of setting the stage for activity, taking things back to emptiness or darkness (even ignorance) in order for new activities of illumination to occur. Without any edits or cuts, the camera slowly moves into the barroom, which is crowded with a few dozen men.7

7 Like many other of Tarr’s films, such as Damnation (1988) and Satantango (1994), Werckmeister Harmonies is noted for being made up only a dozen or so shots of extended duration – up to ten minutes before cutting away. Yet even though these long shots are not treated as ‘still’ images as such – the continuous, restless movements of the camera always undermines this – it still appears as though all movement is associated with a still base. The way the camera moves is akin to the movements of the eye over a painted composition, as if the swings and pirouettes were evidence of saccadic traversals over a given scenario.

The movement is free and continuous, the perspective around head height – we feel like another of the patrons trying to secure one last drink. The barroom is decorated spartanly, a few chairs and tables scattered here and there, and it is soon apparent that it is near to closing time. There is already an undeniable an air of inebriation.
The landlord, a Mr. Hagelmeyer, calls time:
“Gentlemen, please!”8

8 The ‘Gentlemen’ described consist of working men: “drivers, painters, bakers, warehousemen” (Krasznahorkai 1989, 66). It is worth emphasizing that in this scene, the performance we are about to see takes place after closing time in a public house. It is not a private space and this is not polite society. What might otherwise be a celebrated appearance by a Natural Philosopher, visiting a house to give a private educational demonstration, is here translated into an instance whereby the town eccentric begins rotating a group of drunkards in a poetic meditation on the mysteries, not just of the cosmos but of the exquisite loneliness and unknowing that is part of earthly existence. As the film continues we see that the village is caught in the grip of a frost that will not fade, under skies that will not produce more snowfall – the place is in limbo. The very first lines of the script suggest that all that is to follow will only do so after regular hours have expired and that it is then that the request comes, once again, for Valuska to ‘show them’. The after-hours setting indicates that the upcoming entertainment, or indeed instance of learning, not only takes place outside work (being in the bar) but that it is also situated outside any designated leisure time. It is staged in a zone where neither work nor pleasure appears to be directly involved. This puts Valuska’s ‘lecture’ beyond both categories, or in some way outside the ‘earthly’ division between the two. It is not sufficiently outside of work to become a definitively leisurely activity (and vice versa) and, furthermore, its timing is such that it falls precisely in the last moments of this established in-between zone – where time has been ‘called’ yet there still may be space for one-for-the-road. In a sense, this is presented as the perfect (non)time for knowledge to be encountered or taken in – or at least a certain type of knowledge that indicates something profound about the nature of the universe. It is a moment specifically placed outside of societal time in order to stage access to understanding that is also outside ordinary, accepted boundaries. We might compare this with Wright’s depiction of a performance of teaching and learning that takes place in an enclosed environment, surely by-invitation-only. A distinction could be drawn between the private conveyance of material / knowledge, and the form of public demonstration, even one that has, as Krasznahorkai tells us, become overly familiar through repetition. Even these tired public spectacles (which are less easy to avoid) can produce powerful residual effects.

At this point a man with a wide, pale moustache emerges from the crowd to exclaim:
“Just wait a bit for Valuska to show us!”9

9 The as-yet-unfulfilled request is for Valuska to show the clientele of the ‘Peafeffer’ this “business of ‘the erf and the mune’” (Krasznahorkai 65). But what is implied by the directive ‘to show’ in this context? We will soon know that this not only involves Valuksa’s manipulation of his physical surroundings and people in order to effectively ‘model’ something, but also his verbal descriptions and capacity for narrative.

This same man slowly makes his way across the room, towards the camera, looking as though he is about to rope us into the events about to unfold. He then pulls János Valuska, a younger man in his early thirties, from behind the frame.10

10 Valuska is a postman – a person concerned with the delivery and dissemination of information. It is interesting to note the slight difference in translation from the original novel and the English subtitles of Tarr’s and Krasznahorkai’s screenplay, where Valuska alternately describes his speech as an ‘exposition’ and an ‘explanation’. Both words have particular meaning when it comes to the dissemination of learning or the manner in which knowledge is imparted. The former is etymologically linked to processes of showing in such a way that it already implies a more visual register than the more literal or mediated root of ‘making plain’ in the latter.

Valuska is quickly given a drink and steered by the shoulder toward the bar. Again, the man with the moustache makes his appeal:
“Let’s make some room for Valuska to show us.”11

11 The near repetition in this line suggests a reference to Valuska’s own repetitions – the training he has undergone in order to effectively ‘use’ and control his temporary orrery. His is a “set speech” yet his delivery is both relentlessly rehearsed and still dramatic. Through such memorised delivery unforeseen transformations can still occur. No matter how many times his routine has been repeated, there is still a shadow covering it – there is still an unknown quantity. Krasznahorkai’s novel suggests that the repetitions serve as a way for Valuska, as the naïve younger man, to be accepted into the barroom community. Conforming to their drunken wishes is a way for him to find solidarity. Krasznahorkai also writes: “the explanation (…) as a piece of entertainment, had been polished as smooth as possible and simply seemed to occupy the time, had long ceased to be of any interest to anyone.” (Krasznahorkai 65) There are also references here to the occupation of space – the surreal notion of playing out a simulation of the solar system in a village barroom. Yet in as much as it suggests a sense of confinement, this act also contains the seed of a deeper freedom, not only of the imagination and the possibilities of thought (be it appeals to rationality or spiritual reflection), but a definition of freedom in particular reference to Valuska’s lack of any sense of proportion.

The other patrons soon begin to move tables and chairs to clear the floor.12

12 Here the rest of the clientele begin to embrace the fact that the show is about to come to them – for otherwise the crowd displays a “certain obstinacy in dawdling within the four walls of the ‘Peafeffer’ (…) the last thing on its mind being any kind of venture into the unknown.” (Krasznahorkai 1989, 68) Nonetheless, this swift clearance betrays a tacit sympathy with Valuska’s capabilities and his willingness to expose his limited knowledge to the room – in fact to celebrate it precisely for its limited scope. The collective clearance is a sympathetic creation of space, an almost involuntary concession to possibility that is wide enough to allow a partial viewpoint on the cosmos to be levered in.

Valuska and his conductor move slowly into the centre. Preparations are being quietly discussed between them and the man with the moustache appears honoured to be the first selected participant:13

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)
13 Valuska begins to construct his live orrery – a trio of Sun, Earth and Moon formed from selected individuals, with others on the periphery like other stars / spectators. Although it can be related to the planetarium device depicted by Joseph Wright, Valuska’s orrery, established in the barroom, employs modes of thinking, collective inquiry and discovery in a different way.

According to what attributes are Valuska’s heavenly bodies chosen? It becomes increasingly clear as the scenario unfolds that the characters of these elements, as they spin and interact with one another, take on more and more explicit personal dimensions, as some participants seem to relish their roles, while others stare out blankly, quietly performing their allocated duties with the minimum of effort or desperately fighting off alcohol-induced sleep. They each take their place in the constructed universe according to individual nuances of performance, yet are willing to be conducted by Valuska’s superior ‘knowledge’. It remains the case that, throughout, the selected participants collectively contribute to an agency that ultimately provides a platform for the rest of the drunken crew to ‘join them’.

“You are the sun. The Sun doesn’t move, this is what it does.”14

14 As opposed to many other planetary models, orreries were amongst the first devices to demonstrate the sun-centred Copernican cosmology, as this comment off-handedly asserts.

Valuska wiggles his fingers, demonstrating flickering flames. The newly appointed Sun mimics him, waving the fingers of both his hands as he stands upright in the middle of the room. It is as if he were imitating a candle around which the barroom revolved. At this point another man, this time wearing a hat and leaning against the wall, is beckoned toward centre stage. He does not protest.
“You are the Earth. The Earth is here for a start and then moves around the Sun.”
After positioning the Earth, Valuska then begins what seems to be a rehearsed introduction:
“And now… we’ll have an explanation that simple folks like us can also understand about immortality. All I ask is that you step with me into the boundlessness where constancy, quietude, and peace, infinite emptiness reign. And just imagine that in this infinite sonorous silence, everywhere is an impenetrable darkness. Here we only experience general motion and at first we don’t notice the events we are witnessing.”15

Joseph Wright of Derby – Two Boys by Candlelight Blowing a Bladder (1768-71), oil on canvas with silver leaf, San Marino, Huntingdon Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
15 These more expansive introductory remarks suggest something of Valuska’s forthcoming ability to create a believable, involving and ultimately convincing world for the patrons of the ‘Peafeffer’ (and us), purely through his words and his manipulation of movement. His choreographed presentation harnesses the collective imagination in a way that creates an atmosphere of suspended disbelief – a spell is cast, across both time and space, in which the lesson of his story can be best received. A similar metaphor is at work in another candlelit painting by Joseph Wright of Derby entitled Two Boys by Candlelight Blowing a Bladder (1768-71). The inflation of the bladder can be seen as an equivalent metaphor for Valuska's establishment of an improvised yet tangible world by which to convey the "harmonious conjunction" of the "ghostly eclipse" (Krasznahorkai 1989, 75). The bladder is another, more literal, exponent of substitution, yet it performs a similar function as the orchestrated movements of the unsteady drinkers in the ‘Peafeffer’. The painting simultaneously shows an establishment of volume, demarcated by the limits of the inflating organ, with the inclusion of the moment of eclipse – the boy’s hand supporting the sac of air completely blocks out the candle flame. His fingers rise like black roots into the globular bladder. For all its moon-like appearance (what might be described as its albedo – a reference given credence by the fact that Wright applied an underlay of silver leaf beneath the oval section of the bladder and the candle), the bladder is not just a stand in for one planetary body amongst many – it is an indication of an enclosed cosmos, as if infinite limits could nevertheless be bounded, or must be bounded, for the imagination to take hold of them. In order for the nature of the cosmos to be played out on the cleared floor of a barroom, the creation of a world must be set in a coherent atmospheric structure. This confers the establishment of a shared image – as provided for the audience by allotted representatives of Sun, Moon and Earth, but also through them: their operations being established on a plain of collective imagination and involvement. This is a spectacle that is illustrated, embodied and, at the same time, made ready to be transcended: a swelling balloon that is a symptom of the unrepresentable being tapped into, forced into an arena of representation. In addition to this, Wright’s painting shows the bladder taking the place of the candle flame, neatening and pacifying it somehow, as if again indicating the types of ‘illumination’ Wright engages with in his scientific concerns, stemming in part from the curiosity of man. The light-infused bladder, a sign of both containment and expansion, lights up the two boy's faces, framing them in the tense anticipation of what is to happen next. (cf. Terpak 2002, 191) The use of metaphor and fictional invention, specifically in relation to conveying complex celestial re-evaluations, can also be usefully related to writings by the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi. In a short, four-act play entitled Copernicus (c.1827), Leopardi stages discussions between the figures of Sun, First and Last Hour of Day and the eponymous philosopher. During an especially “long night” that again echoes the effects of an eclipse, the Sun decides (out of “laziness”!) that it is no longer prepared to travel around the Earth. Instead the Sun is to take over the position hitherto occupied by the Earth, in the centre or “highest seat” of the universe. Everything is, from this point on, to orbit around it. In order to make this happen, the Sun requires Philosophy. Copernicus is enlisted by one of the Sun’s ‘handmaidens’, the Last Hour of Day, to rearrange the conception, and therefore the actual functioning of the cosmos. The Sun tells him “there will be no more day, not today, tomorrow or ever, if you do not arrange it.” (Leopardi 1981, 150) Copernicus lists the difficulties of such a task, protesting that such an overturning of knowledge “will cause an apocalyptic revolution in metaphysics [and] indeed all that relates to the speculative area of knowledge”; men, he cries, “will find themselves changed utterly from what they were heretofore and what they imagined themselves to be.” (Leopardi 1981, 153) In is a curious echo of the residual convictions and affectedness of János Valuska, the Sun recognises the capacity for philosophy to change the accepted laws of the solar system. It sees that the world of ideas can be transferred with real power into the idea of the world: thought is able to move planets and stars, and to satisfy desire by allowing it to become actualized.

Valuska starts to spin the Earth around the Sun.
“The brilliant light of the Sun always sheds its heat and light on that side of the Earth which is just then turned towards it. And we stand here in its brilliance.”
They continue the movements he has directed. Then he introduces the Moon.
“This is the Moon. The Moon revolves around the Earth.”
Physically manoeuvring their interconnected orbits, Valuska spins the men in tandem. He seems to encourage a musical or rhythmical pattern, before stopping them abruptly:16

16 Is this an interruption of Valuska’s narrative or the last set-up for his ultimate point? Where does the beginning of an ‘event’ come in this case – is the postman describing its precise unfolding in time, or is he providing an image of it having already occurred? Is it possible for him to differentiate between these states? There are many descriptions of progress in Valuska’s words and everyone in the room (and beyond) senses the implied inevitability of the eclipse.

“What is happening? We suddenly see that the disc of the Moon, the disc of the Moon… on the Sun’s flaming sphere makes an indentation, and this indentation, the dark shadow, grows bigger… and bigger. And as it covers more and more, slowly, only a narrow crescent of the Sun remains, a dazzling crescent. And at the next moment… the next moment, say that it’s around one in the afternoon, the most dramatic turn of events occurs.”17

17 This is the crux of Valuska’s presentation – the moment we have been waiting for. The reference to the dazzling crescent suggests that an increase of illumination occurs in privation, the strength of light increasing as the limits of darkness widen.

Valuska bows the Sun down so that he faces the floor.18

18 Does the duration of the eclipse come in a physical gesture? Valuska physically folds the Sun figure over at the waist, forcing him and his still-waving fingers to face the floor for a few moments, as he describes the effects of the absence. Valuska’s description touches upon the melancholy of enduring ignorance, the prospect (suddenly undeniable) of a world abandoned by God, who is either dead, absent or uncaring; the world is made strange, with all things cast into chaos and unknowing. The moment of the eclipse is crucially ambiguous too. It is described in terms of panic and uncertainty, especially in the initial reaction of those that see it, but it is also recognised as a principal of order, a conjunction so harmonious and rare that its power of conjunction sweeps across space and time – a unique event that contains a multitude of significance.

“At this moment… the air turns suddenly cold. Can you feel it? The sky darkens and then goes all dark. The dogs howl, rabbits hunch down, the deer run in panic, run, stampede in fright. And in this awful, incomprehensible dusk, even the birds… the birds too are confused and go to roost. And then… complete silence.”19

19 Animals are thrown into confusion as the entire natural world knows not how to react to the effects of the eclipse. Panic runs through all manner of creatures, including those that are ignorant of the paths of planets, the overlaps of satellites or the possibility that this might be predicted and explained. Within the eclipse, the quality of the light, the disruption in time and sequence (cause and effect), is described as ‘incomprehensible’ – it cannot be attended to. Amid further references to connections between silence, coldness and darkness, Tarr makes a deliberate and compelling intervention: at the very mention of the ‘complete silence’ of the eclipse, he introduces piano music. This does not make proper sense without making reference to the musical theories implied by the film’s title. As the itinerant postman, another of Valuska’s series of duties is to visit the retired music professor Gyuri Eszter. In a lengthy speech in the middle of the film, Eszter makes reference to the 17th century German music theorist Andreas Werckmeister and his advocacy of the equal temperament tuning system, suggesting that this was a gesture too dismissive of hitherto accepted musical theories (espoused by figures such as Pythagoras) which linked to the essential harmony of the universe: i.e. the music of the spheres – tones said to be produced by the very movements of the planets. Eszter bemoans what he considers to be distortions of equal temperament and longs for a return to a more ordered system by which music remains a tangible, recognizable link between the earthly world and the celestial heavens above.

Piano music begins.

“Everything that lives is still. Are the hills going to march off? Will Heaven fall upon us? Will the earth open under us? We don’t know. We don’t know for a total eclipse has come upon us.”20

20 Valuska’s vision of ignorance, doubt and unknowing is apocalyptic. The duration of the eclipse is a window of uncertainty where all secure knowledge is on the verge of collapse. For a brief moment, it is an event so momentous that it emerges as a kind of slow motion revelation or sublime encounter. The ensuing wave of disruption, and the effects of Valuska’s enacted commentary upon it, is indented in Krasznahorkai’s novel, where he asks whether the eclipse does something like identify a ‘problem’ of unknowing that, due to its nature, could not be otherwise recognized:

        “(…) alleviating something in them once more,
        but only once,
        some burning itch
        of which, as yet, they had no knowledge?”            
        (Krasznahorkai 1989, 74)

The author immediately dismisses the question, suggesting only that the patrons of the ‘Peafeffer’ had ‘left the door open’ and that the moment is soon gone. They are only temporarily disrupted from their habitual patterns of thinking – the disruption is not permanent and neither are its surrounding effects. The moment of reception, the moment of learning, is in fact a period of forgetting. The patrons of the ‘Peafeffer’ absent themselves momentarily, along with the Sun. They are taken out of themselves, after having been positioned in such a way as to be free to “forget the ending” (Krasznahorkai 1989, 74). Therefore, to emerge from the period of eclipse, as it is staged inside the barroom, is to be woken from a dream. Part of Valuska’s aim is to generate this targeted forgetting – to formalise an event that itself consists of formlessness – which the drunkards soon emerge from, “sharply re-establish[ing] contact with terra-firma.” (Krasznahorkai 1989, 74) It is only Valuska that continues to ‘see’ the dream vision he himself perpetuated. Only he can visualise the moon’s continuing transit, or recognise the (eternal) return symbolised by the sun’s reappearance. Only he can hear any possibility of harmonious music linking this world below and that above.

The action pauses and the camera starts to withdraw. It is as if something has been abandoned, mid-explanation. The perspective starts to alter as the frame rises toward the ceiling, only coming to a stop when the rim of an overhead light intrudes into the image. The return of the Sun is already prefigured. The camera returns to earth and
Valuska speaks again:
“But… but no need to fear, it’s not over. For across the Sun’s glowing sphere slowly the Moon swims away. And the Sun once again bursts forth [He raises up the Sun to an upright position] and to the Earth slowly there comes light again [He starts the Earth and Moon spinning again] and warmth again floods the Earth. Deep emotion pierces everyone. They have escaped the weight of darkness.”21

21 It could be argued that the underlying optimism in Tarr’s film concerns this process of accepting change (and indeed destruction) in the hope that a process of learning will emerge through it – that a seed of hope remains present even as a world descends into chaos and violence. The crucial theme in Werckmeister Harmonies could be the return of light, or the possibility of regaining ‘order’ – something like the survival of an encounter with the new or with the unknown, not in the sense of being able to pass over the new without effect or to exploit and assimilate the unexpected, but rather allowing novelty to be recognised on its own terms. The film engages with this theme throughout its wider storyline, where the appearance of the strange and unfamiliar is symbolized by the visit of a travelling circus to the village, where the ‘biggest whale in the world’ is preserved and displayed in the back of a truck. A mysterious Prince accompanies this sideshow – a figure that is never seen directly (shown only in shadow, as if eclipsed) but whose presence encourages the fermenting unrest to explode into violent destruction, with mobs running riot through the streets.

Beckoned by Valuska, the rest of the bar starts to move into the middle of the room to start spinning and pirouetting like additional stars and planets. Soon everyone has joined in the dance, not necessarily all as planetary bodies but as figures of force – moons or orbit rings, perhaps, crowding the Sun.22

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)
22 The movements of the drinkers are symptomatic of a recently abandoned reverie and the joy that might accompany any subsequent, clear-headed embrace of mystery. The dance is also an active and involving demonstration, as the camera swirls around with the men of the ‘Peafeffer’, each of them gently buffeted by others, still finding their way somehow.

The dance is then dispersed as the landlord strides through the crowd to open the door, crying:
“That’s enough! Out of here, you tubs of beer!”
Valuska approaches the door, putting on his coat and scarf. He says calmly:
“But Mr. Hagelmayer, it’s still not over.”23

23 What are the limits of an eruption of strangeness into everyday life, or the lasting consequences of an artificially staged collision between banal uniformity and unique events? Even as Valuska’s presentation unfolds “with not the minutest variation in his delivery” (Krasznahorkai 1989, 73), there is nonetheless a residual effect of unsettling his audience. Even if they are so used to it they do not hear it, Valuska’s performance still moves them. The last line of the scene, uttered as Valuska exits the ‘Peafeffer’, constitutes his ultimate appeal to the unfolding of understanding he has briefly flirted with, and his final attempt to emphasise the possibility of its continuation under other conditions. Even if, after waking from the spell, the patrons of the ‘Peafeffer’ remain essentially indifferent, it is in fact Valuska that is the student. His role is pedagogical, to be sure, but it also possesses a maieutic function – he reveals knowledge to himself. He tries to be an intermediary but also has to assume to his own form of responsibility for attending to these universal secrets on behalf of others. He is the one that is most profoundly and most enduringly affected – he is, after all, the ultimate audience for his own exposition/explanation. Krasznahorkai mentions “the intense look on his face suggesting he was merely the medium for others.” (Krasznahorkai 1989, 72) Part of Valuska’s assumption of this role concerns the transfer of his understanding, which might be seen as ‘virtual’ (aligned with his barroom simulation), into actuality – he performs a transformation of ideas into matter, into tangible results. Krasznahorkai’s explains that Valuska “wanted to see, and did in fact see, the light returning to earth; he wanted to feel, and did in reality feel, the fresh flood of warmth; he wanted to experience, and genuinely did experience, the deeply stirring sense of freedom that understanding brings to a man who has laboured in terrifying, icy, judgmental shadow of fear.” (Krasznahorkai 1989, 75) The linkage between imagined desire and actual experience is blurred for Valuska – he finds himself in a half-light world, caught in an in-between space that outlines a fundamental quality of the transmission and acceptance of knowledge.

No one else is seen to leave.24

24 At the end of the night, and of Tarr’s opening sequence, Valuska is ultimately alone. Subsequent shots see him trudging through the ice bound streets, passing under localized street lighting as if linking up stars separated by dark voids. Only he gets lost in the “monumental simplicity of the cosmos” (Krasznahorkai 1989, 68), carrying his acquired vision with him. It is only he who eventually pays the price – Valuska is driven insane, unable to reconcile the possibility that it is only the equally chaotic (i.e. corrupt) representatives of the village that can restore order after the rioting, essentially revealing that there is no way out of the cycle, there is no alternative (other than violent anarchy) to the flawed and rotten system that engendered the violence in the first place. Valuska’s relationship to knowledge, as embodied in his strange, otherworldly presentation, is his means of escape and his downfall. For “Valuska really did know nothing about the universe, for what he knew was not exactly knowledge. He had no sense of proportion and was entirely lacking the compulsive drive to reason; he was not hungry to measure himself, time and time again, against the pure and wonderful mechanism of ‘that silent heavenly clockwork’ for he took it for granted that his great concern for the universe was unlikely to be reciprocated by the universe for him.” (Krasznahorkai 1989, 80) Tarr’s film, like Wright’s painting, is not engaged with the same transmission of knowledge that is depicted. In A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery in which a lamp is put in place of the sun, the child allocated the eclipsing role not only obscures the Sun / candle but prevents our own visual access to a fundamental part of the mechanism being explained. We cannot see the Sun but only the effects of its emanations. In Werckmeister Harmonies, Valuska enacts the eclipse in a way that we, and the device he constructs, must ‘fill in the gaps’, but it cannot be the perfect fit for the vacancies it contains. There is no perfect overlap. The two depictions, then, concern the dissemination of understanding achieved via means that foreground the possibility of the failure of that dissemination, of new understanding reverting back to the status quo, or being otherwise full of ‘obscuring holes’.


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First published to accompany 'New Perspectives on Joseph Wright' conference, hosted by the Digital and Material Art Research Centre (DMARC), The University of Derby, January 2012