When I cut through things it means that I encounter a relief in the world. Now, a relief is something that takes us by surprise, although it is not hidden, as it is always there in the open. It is pure exteriority. Picture the cross-bedding tabular-planar layers on a bedding plane of a mountain. Thus, a relief is not a void nor is something that one accomplishes. On the contrary, it appears, and it transforms the world into a fragmentation of things. I would not be able to visualize a relief without first having an encounter. Hence the relief is a world that is freed from cartography: in this sense, it is a sub-world or ultra-world in its appearance. The relief takes place at ground level, but it is not grounded; it an event of the surface, but its ultimate determination is the sky or the landscape. I think that here the maximum distance with the metropolis becomes clear.
What is a metropolis at the end of the day? A possible definition: it is a total surface without reliefs. The prohibition of reliefs (an old monothetic superstition) confirms the aura of the epoch without movement. When all we have are extended surfaces, then anyone could be at anyplace any given time. The encounter with an irreducible thing is fulfilled by the relation with any object. An object that is really not an object but an icon. The consequence of this transformation of experiencing the world is immense; it entails nothing more than the destruction of the time of life compensated with relations with the surface.
How does a relief come to being? How does it appear in the open? Thinking about this in the past couple of days, it occurred to me that a moment in Pindar’s “Isthmian 4” ode offered an image of relief; an imagen that I have not been able to escape from since I first read it a few years ago. Pindar says:
“during the struggle, but in cunning (mētis) he is a fox
whirling onto its back (anapitanmena) to check the eagle’s swoop.
One must do everything to weaken the enemy” (Nem. 4.45-48).
The fox becomes a relief on the surface, and in doing so, it produces an exit from enmity. Unlike the wolf, the fox does not run away from the territory; it finds the “escape route” within the apparent. The term anapitanmena means ‘stretching” across the surface. Its character as kerdō (“the wily one”) guarantees its cunning movement from within its body. Indeed, according to Detienne & Vernant in their Cunning intelligence in Greek Culture and Society (1978), the “escape” – which Pindar’s Greek used “olisthanein” – stages the image of the wrester’s oiled body coming unloose from the opponent’s grip. The fox’s “via du uscita” takes place as relief that unstraps the reduction of a surface. Similarly, in Oppian’s Treatise on hunting (211), the fox’s wily character (dōlos) dwells in the threshold between dead and alive, becoming even “more alive than the living” (Detienne & Vernant, 35). However, it is not just a wrestling metaphor of physical force, as Detienne and Vernant beautifully explain, the fox’s intelligence occurs thanks to the flexibility that dissolves the inside and the outside:
“Thanks to its energy and flexibility (hugrotēta) it is able to change its body (metaballein tò sōma) and turn it inside out (strephein) so that the interior becomes the exterior: the hook falls out. Aelian provides full confirmation on the subject of this maneuver: ‘it unfolds its internal organs and turns them inside out, divesting itself of its body as if it were a shirt…The fox, being the embodiment of cunning can only behave as befits the nature of an intelligence full of wiles. If it turns back on itself it is because it is, itself, as it were, mētis, the power of reversal” (Detienne & Vernant, 37).
Not in the body but in the shirt, that is, in the garment. The fox embodies the relief that externalizes the surface with the kinetic energy of the inappropriable. Whoever has encountered a fox knows this from experience. The fox blends with the landscape, but it does not become one with it. This minimal apparent distance is the creation of the relief. Only now, after some years in Pennsylvania, I am able to make sense of an encounter with a wild fox in the backyard. There was no confrontation or desperate seeking out, but a moment of detention that seemed to cut against everything else happening around it lending itself to the encounter. The fox always waits for you even before you are near the encounter. What is this lapsus-time within time? Here again, perhaps a poet can give us a hand. In a poem surprisingly called “Metropoli” (1958) by Vittorio Sereni, we encounter a modern fox, or rather a fox in a modern setting. It is a more familiar fox than Pindar’s wily creature, since we in no condition today to be able to understand the epic of Greek wrestling, or the practice of hunting, or the life of the polis. Sereni makes a more manageable sense of the figure possible. The important verses from the second stanza are:
« […] vecchia volpe
abbagliata di città, come muove al massacro:
la sua eleganza, qualità̀
prettamente animale tra le poche che l’uomo
può̀ prestare alle cose» (Sereni 2006, 190)
Like Pindar’s fox, this old fox is dazzled because it “moves” towards the apparent. This mode of violence – “a massacro”, for Sereni – is not necessarily depredatory. What follows is an explicit thematization of style: an elegance that has a quality that is scarce among humans. This elegance is not an abstract characterization of being a fox, but rather how the apparent, in the clothing, invests the animal in one life. But it seems to me that the enjambment for Sereni falls on the last verse: “può prestare alle cose”. “It lends to things” – in other words, it finds itself at home with the things he finds.
Again, like in Pindar, he becomes a relief among things, because now things are separated and not just “ordered”. The stylization of the fox in the modern voice of Sereni is the passage from the extreme physicality of the olisthanein to the “eleganza” granted by the dressing with the surface. There is no vanitas in this dressing-up; it is rather a contact of appearances that, in suspending the unlimited contours, it exposes the glitter of the relief. The relief turns out to be a garment.
*Imagen: The visit of a fox in the backyard, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, 2018. From my personal archive.