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Interstice: Stone Picture the scenes that might be staged by a very skillful stonemason practicing a kind of lithography with his chisel or by the philosopher writing at the limit of philosophy, . . . writing a text doubly on stone, making stone speak of itself. —John Sallis, Stone To contemplate rocks . . . is to entertain the possibility of being crushed by them. —Gaston Bachelard, Earth and Reveries of Will Stone, of course, does not speak, let alone refer to itself. Or does it? To speak of it speaking or remaining mute, one must imagine an account of its cryptic language, a dialogue with its inner essence or, alternatively, a story of its elemental silence. The Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska provides one such confabulation in “Conversation with a Stone” when the unnamed speaker in her poem—who wants to “have a look round”—knocks repeatedly at the door of a stone, who refuses entry to its interior but in doing so nevertheless displays a voice. The stone is more, or at least other, than what it is normally perceived to be. “You may get to know me, but you’ll never know me through / My whole surface is turned toward you, / all my insides turned away.” Despite the many entreaties and varied assurances that the speaker will not seek refuge and will leave “empty-handed,” all the requests are summarily denied. “You lack the sense of taking part,” says the stone. And, it turns out, no other sense is an adequate substitute for this absence, not “even sight heightened to become all-seeing.” “You shall not enter, you have only a sense of what that sense / should be, / only its seed, imagination.” Appropriately and humorously, the stone’s last response is “I don’t have a door,” as the speaker and reader are thrown back to their separate realities.1 We easily forget that Western philosophy commences, quite astonishingly, with contemplation of a rock rather than a thought or a human action or a deity. 51 52 | Elemental Philosophy As tradition touts it, Thales ponders a magnesium stone that reveals to him a world in which soul (psyche) is kinetic and the world is alive and “full of gods.” He holds forth boldly that the loadstone possesses soul—which, whether associated with spinal fluid, breath, or blood, was considered widely to be the source of life or consciousness—because it, the stone, literally moves iron. In other words, what manifests the capacity to stir and change of its own accord is animated. Thales’ words were not written in stone; in fact, they survive only through the deteriorated parchment of doxographers and later commentators, who enable him to speak from beneath a gravestone, but his extant fragments of speculation possess the potential to move a new material discourse into existence. Thus, the Philosopher’s Stone (lapis philosophorum)—the mythic material of alchemy—was thought to allow us to turn lead to gold. Hegel still falls under its metaphoric sway when he writes, “In regard to Nature, it is agreed that philosophy ought to know her as she is, that if the philosopher’s stone is hidden anywhere, it must at any rate be within Nature herself.”2 In a strange way, it continues to fascinate through stories, film, and institutions such as Freemasonry, offering up the enticing idea of transmuting elemental substance into a more magical metal, or even providing an elixir of immortality. Likely bewitched by this kind of lure, Aristotle’s student, Theophrastus, devoted an entire volume to the investigation of stone, classifying rock based on its response to heat, organizing minerals according to their revealed properties, describing precious stones, and remarking on the relative hardness of earthen entities.3 At times, the names of rocks seem capable of conjuring up secret realms themselves, like foreign words hinting at unfamiliar worlds. Perhaps, they should be intoned slowly, like incantations: malachite, schist, mica, onyx, agate, flint, garnet, quartzite, turquoise, feldspar, and gneiss. Whole human eras have been claimed for rocks and minerals, including the Stone Age, Iron Age, and Bronze Age. Indeed, the history of civilizations and the natural history of the land eventually become fixed in layers of stone stacked above one another like cuneiform tablets waiting for archeologists, anthropologists, climatologists, and paleontologists to unearth and patiently decipher them. As “recordings” or “texts,” stone is far from silent, incommunicative or cold to the well-trained ear, eye, and touch. “To a geologist,” writes Marcia Bjornerud, it tells “gothic tales of scorching heat, violent...


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