Being Seen for Seeing: a tribute to R F Langley's Journals

Peter Larkin

'Unless the Humming of a Gnat is as the Music of the Spheres
& the music of the spheres is as the humming
of a gnat - '         (Ronald Johnson, after Thoreau)


These Journals are among the most fascinating prose texts I know, which I'm happy to have swallowed whole, whatever palpable design might be lurking within the sheer virtuosity of the writing. My response consists in a few discrete pellets of digestion from what was absorbed far more vicariously, with some predatory compression perhaps of a grateful nurture─given this supplement. The writing stands comparison with the astute annotations of poetic perception from Dorothy Wordsworth through Ruskin and Hopkins to Jefferies and Edward Thomas. The only postwar writing which runs it close is J A Baker's Peregrine, an extraordinary tour de force of self-transformingly naturalistic simile which Langley could well be familiar with. Peregrines appear in his own text on pp. 104-5. There is a practical continuity with Romantic and post-Romantic particularism, but it's one which gropes its way to disavowal as well as oblique sequel. Although the Journals read well enough alone, the cross-referencing with Langley's poetry is impossible to ignore, and allows the latter a ghostly but sustaining ballast his verse otherwise shies away from.

Wordsworth's "light of common day" was in itself a way of trying to make Romantic sensibility sustainable, and for Langley the ordinary is both a discipline and a critique:

is clearer and more simple than a row of
rabbits caught outright in common light
That's how the second poem in the "Juan Fernandez" sequence ends, and the Journals will assemble sounds with shards of light until they become the workings of seeing a rabbit: "Did I make a rabbit by expecting it? Not so, I was not so primed." (p. 22). No observer could be that primary in Langley's world but must struggle to put together, or be apprised by, a facet of weirdness refusing to be alienated from its object, electing contextual surprise rather than disjunctive fantasy. But this doesn't conform to a Wordsworthian fitting of mind to world or world to mind. In the poem "No Great Shakes" inner and outer spheres seem mutually intrusive. Where pine-cones are "rows of turbines set into / the wind" the mind within "expects a blow". When each cone screws into the wind "up to its head" the retort is "In here, / there is no thread." Where the outer is knowable for "twirling / pollen" having the "best shape for / the flow" there is a terse non-correspondence: "Inside─none." Another poem ("The Upshot") announces that "Things / stand further off." Not that this is simple alienation, since "We find / peace in the room and don't / ask what won't be answered." Resentment commutes to tact, or the not-asking ghosts a sufficient relation, but such pre-emptive quietism can also confront repose as impasse. We are reminded that, however dedicated, perceptual attention is at best an ambivalent secular pastime in which something (satisfied) nonetheless (the lesser insistently more than nothing) stays on hand for more. The Journals offer a brittle epiphany, a crunchy thinginess of intimacy against hope. The force of detail launches a never-failing surprise, but the writing seems acutely aware that this is what must be failed if any compassionate correlation is to be found at the heart of attentiveness itself. There is an active "unself-sufficing" here for all the verve of the diurnal nonchalance. The Journals put it more delicately themselves: "Some entity which mattered in its not, probably, mattering too much" (p. 108). The frisson of primordial negation (entities mattering as what they are not) is diverted by the frugality of the "probably" which negotiates between pure negation and any over-determined meaningfulness. Though chastening any knock-on from vision to visionary, Langley's sparseness remains properly ontological: some entity persists as the matter of mattering. The purgation is exemplary, but an excess of meaning (as the very receptiveness of a particulate materiality) may already have occurred. The writer wakes up in the early hours recalling Hamlet's "The rest is silence" which sets off an image-stream which includes an aardvark's nose and a 60's pop song, all micro-specifics "devoid of any consequences, each just itself, for no purpose" (p. 100). Here is a perfected singularity, but it lacks any "given-to" by which to participate in it, or what Jean Luc Marion dubs the "adonné" of our existence in a conscious revision of Heidegger's Dasein. Nihilism doesn't seem Langley's real object, however, but a desire to plot seeing across a being seen in a way closer to the sensibility of a Merleau-Ponty, however much this is schooled to the bleak equality of noting each other's nothingness with no value addition. The world remains fully in touch but also spans itself as empty-handed.


In his poem "Mariana" Langley invokes "Not things, / but seeing things" which means acknowledging things that see as much as seeing into them, seeing the self back to itself as around itself. The Journals confess that though "everything is so evident, there seems an awkwardness in adjusting to your contact with it." A figure in mourning in a church bas-relief composes herself against this awkwardness and so "does not suit the prickliness and jumps and stiff surprises of the world outside" (p. 72). By contrast, insects, spiders, and birds draw out from the perceiving subject a sense of shock which skews but recomposes self-recognition: "Into each go foreigners from myself, all couth, all uncouth…[t]ogether they seethe together to make up some of a man" (p. 94). The world which must be got true out of very surprise (p. 103) allows, like shadows interacting with the outlines of retreating frost, "an overlap, not a match" (p. 71). As Langley puts it in a recently published entry: "Nothing is less than particular. And, indeed, nothing is less than particular." (PN Review, 173). The iteration insinuates that the slightness of particulars is not negation but minute instantiation, unexampled as grounding but free of any further indebtedness. Langley's de-privileging of perception isn't as such deterministic; on the contrary, the very groundlessness is moved toward the participatory. When a specimen of Sitticus rupicola is noted as seen on June 3rd, the Journals as quickly record the spider "saw us on the same day, its head tilting up, staring with its black, frontal pair of eyes…" (p. 93). Earlier, Langley had been even more courtly towards an Evarcha: "I in my straw hat, he in his dance mask, interested in each other, and parting as equals, without, I trust, a cloud of distress left behind the hedge" (p. 59). Does such reciprocity hanker for a theopoetic tinge? There is a hint when Langley finds himself outside Autun Cathedral beneath a Christ in Majesty amid swirling, shrieking swifts. The Christ seems to ignore them but the relation is more like the master conjuror before a troupe of acrobats: "He has long seen it all and now grants it a showing without having to look…He comes to the unmediated 'This' and 'Thus,' and has thrown out both hands" (p. 89). This fantasy is tightly delineated. To be granted a showing seems epiphanic enough, but the giver must first Himself have been a looker-on. Here, where Langley seems to be skirting the radiant Christology of a Hopkins, any generosity of response must itself be a "given", otherwise no seeing can participate in being seen. Within this gesture of seeing being seeable, perception itself is placed on an ontological cusp, though with such frugality that all percepts are recomposed in their found order, are owed a root in the ordinary, however grateful the writing is for their initial strangeness (which signals a speculative alert). Of course, such particulars are interpretable but they refuse to allegorise or speculate anything in excess of themselves, they are highlights in the moving light of the ordinary. This is not to stare back at the surdities of nature without refracting them onward in a particular play of referring and offering nonetheless, albeit with those leaky hands which scatter content as much as irradiate it. If any granular detail attracts an aura round itself, that glow is weaker than the abrasiveness of the grain itself, but it remains a plea for the grit's co-visibility. Such perceptions flirt with a repristination, a world seen clear into its perfusion, lingering before horizons of ontological generosity but remaining unviolated by the intrusive excursions of praise.


Some of Langley's most vivid entries ("because I was there, and because they have often played a part in my further thinking" (p. 8)) focus on insects or spiders. Flies, centipedes, gnats wasps and beetles populate these Journals, together with some minutely identified and entubed spiders. It is at this level that the writer's itch to be seen alongside, a seeing to be seen towards, is acute. Is there an implicit biosemiosis here, or what Wendy Wheeler calls the "biocommunicative repertoire of all living things" ("Postscript on Biosemiotics: Reading beyond Words─and Ecocriticism" New Formations, 64 (2008), 137-154; 143). Biosemiotics renaturalises human cultures, seeing them not only as emergent from, but to some extent shared by, the non-human, a condition of our being able to recognize any natural existence at all (149). Living things, Wheeler argues, don't have a mechanistic relation to their world but constitute it by recognizing and interpreting it. In the Journals a sand wasp is observed to unseal its burrow, check and tidy it before dragging in a caterpillar after itself, then plug the hole by fanning its wings: "during the last few times we hear it, the sound does open up, as if it were emerging" (p. 51). The skill of reading for insect signs is also emergent. Earlier, an orange male Oonops domesticus spider is recognized by its "smooth, groping progress without pausing or changing direction" (p. 41).

One entry stands out in these Journals and begs a response, though itself an effort to live without it, or without imposing it where it has no place. Edmund Hardy was quite right to focus on it in his review of the Journals as it is a stunning scenario (Hardy quotes it in full). It's one in which Langley appears to invert Kantian aesthetics by sketching a purpose without purposiveness. This time the insect is not fully greetable, possibly a "mirid bug" but otherwise nominalization fails before the intrepidity of the creature itself. Long and slow-moving with hair-thin legs, it walks unflinchingly along the brick parapet of a railway bridge, catching the writer's attention only because it moves so deliberately. It follows an absolutely straight line wherever it can, perhaps in parody of Newtonian mechanics, but its motion is otherwise oblivious of any intentional framework. It takes it 5 minutes to traverse 4 bricks and the diesel loco which passes underneath is "in an altogether different world of sound, speed, size, purpose and agitation" (p. 99). The insect's receptive failure attracts Langley's own bemused interpretation: where is this insect going and for what? It will take another hour to cross the bridge to a hedge, by which time it will be dusk. The attempt at hopeless encounter is Beckettian in its intricate puzzlement: "When it is dark…will it still walk on?" (elision in text). This creature for whom there "is nothing for it to look forward to" will "never be seen by anyone who has words again" (p. 99). Probing this far is bleak, and inevitably calls up a the chimera of a possible ontological salvation, as if words could be implicitly offered in some engagement out-distancing description. In another entry, Langley notes that it is "[n]atural facts in their reality that I reach for" but also confesses "I am not entirely present as the person fingering it" (p. 76). This chasm is confronted more sheerly in the poems, where the "surd" element of the natural world can induce a near-surreal fictional disjunction, though one offered as a recursive feedback to that etiolated origin. Langley remains true to the micro-intensity of his dilemma and never grandly decontextualises or swerves away─even more the case in the Journals than the poems (which rarely feed-in their actual starting points). Such mini-events are moving nothings out of nowhere, but nudged to the (often disconsolate) somewhere of what is a co-attention, a reception on behalf of the mysterious visibility of what remains enigmatically but irreducibly there. This is no symmetry enjoined on the insect, but an itch for a more asymmetric offering-on, in what is a celebration of the ordinary in all its unrelievedness but alerted by an initial weirdness difficult to repackage without remainder. There seems a surplus of "describing forward" even where the text is committed to wrapping the ordinary back over itself. As if a contemplative excess which nests not in the ineffable but in the unspeaking moment (after a sudden jerk of scintillation) must involve a flash of sympathetic inclusion flaring out without resolution but no longer, as such, totally reclusive or opaque.


The Journals discretely contend that the real deals itself out in ontological imperfection, in iridescent flaws that coincide with averted gift. Reflecting on the leaf-carving in Southwell Minster, Langley ruminates that the pursuit of accuracy and detail "may be just so many more observed facts. That loneliness of all the facts" (p. 109). Naturalism isn't quite what he is after then, but a chance of participating in a recognition not merely formal or even aesthetic. What this "something more, a development, another angle" (p. 109) could be remains undisclosed, perhaps because this more-than could never be just another describable aspect of the world. Langley's scrupulosity wards off the threat of false universals, though a hunger for an ontological wealth "deep down things" seems to persist, however pared down to perduring surfaces. But at such close range these things mimic the manner if not the substance of givens. A desert of exact particulars rhymes a gamut of soulful attention, one in itself painstakingly frugal in outline, but still in excess of the events it self-effacingly traces. Might something like a modal scarcity of the given appear here, no longer wholly minimal in its economy but opening to a plenitude of gift as the condition of its sparingly obstinate actuality?

"May be, when something feels close in the way I am looking for, one feels that some heed has been taken of it, to hold it and keep it" (p. 122). One expects this to be subverted but it is not, though it does refer in part to a bag of rubbish, and without heed "things are loose"; and once they "had just come" there is "no closer to come" (p. 123). A sacral sense declares itself unequal to coping with the likely perceptual interference of its own acceptation, but for Langley this is how it repairs itself. In another entry, he is less scrupulous over his joy at arriving at a looked-forward-to holiday home: "And step inside this unexpectedly generous sameness, perfect to an astonishment, a gratitude. The house here becomes, in a moment, something to count on," (p. 79). Surprise arises from a wealth of sameness here, but it is more likely that an "ipse" (in Ricoeur's terms) is being invoked to suspend the rivalry of idem and alter. There is certainly faith in the possibilities of co-perception rather than in any forced subversion of appearances. Such things do drop away in Langley's world but they were not previously dismissed.

At another moment, when robins slip beyond writerly narration "[t]here was some triumph in the mineral tang of their calls, taps urgently delivered on the here and now, their own warning of themselves, and us, so situated in the scrub, and nothing more" (p. 45). Langley's "nothing more" can be something of a litany─it certainly marks the suspension of any purely descriptive motif. John Milbank in his provocative essay "Glissando: Life, Gift and the Between" reminds us of a radically non-Darwinian moment in A Thousand Plateaus where a bird singing is not primarily defending a territory but continuously establishing it, removing a haeccity from the organized flux to restore and release energy endemic to life as such. For Deleuze and Guattari a territory was a sacred space established by animal art before it became an assurance of security, since these things need not be sought through any process of individuation, it simply happens that they are. Could Langley have something like this in mind when he extols intense attention to the particular as a way of eliminating "the incongruities between objective depersonalised transcendent views of the state of things and the subjective self-absorbed view which they belittle, but which you need to keep close to hand". "Transcendent" precisely isn't rubbishing the sacral here, but universal frameworks of explanation (of which description itself might be a second cousin). How could the transcendent in its divine tenor as radical gift ever come close? Is there no giftedness of an intimate congruity, or an asymmetric participation of the horizontal in the vertical which allows the "glissando" of a relational between, as John Milbank argues for? For him the glissando of continuous variation is vital rather than mechanistic, and auto-poetic shifts in internal animal constitution are positive elaborative adaptations rather than a struggle over scarce resources (though the latter is not absent). Living organisms, in a sort of "goal beyond a goal", participate in a drive towards fulfillment and flourishing. What is the ontological character of the living unit? Milbank demands of us. The glissando of organic variation is mysteriously interrupted by preferential selections which make "revelatory" moments possible as when a human composer of music selects from an infinite myriad of possible combinations. The "revelation," one could say, is not a new deus ex machina but an ontological wealth which declares relation and offers to interpret the gift of itself as dependence. For Milbank, to realize a work of art out of this selection is to offer delight and so extend the gift, not just as a work of instruction. If this sort of relationality is "gifted," the world itself must consist purely of relation, a reception of itself as gift which it must then award itself.

This sense of relationality, though not erased, is extremely hard-pressed in Langley, duress being both a delineation and obstructive resistance, but a reader can find uncensored moments of exultation also: "as if there were miles of available dappling below…[t]he sense of an inexhaustible resource of excited, various availability…ready for the contentment of an enormous sigh of acceptance" (p. 81). With such truth to a moment which ignores any counter-truth pushing in from another moment, simply because that was not its time, Langley's notation utters what his poems are too highly crafted to be able to say, though their gnomic and cellular-like qualities suggest an ascesis which keeps this in mind or has to come from here, however losably. There is no easy road in the Journals between the given and the granted, what there is for the latter to be taken for. If gift is a difficult secret it is not intruded on, but maintains a quietude of endurance always reverting to itself without privileged remainder. But the writing is excessful enough to be a reminder of these dynamics of scarce fulfillment in the unhoped-for. Given the compelling precision and delicacy of what Langley achieves in this writing, a last word must be left with his (tenacious) ontological diffidence:

Enough of this. The place has accumulated routines, touches on objects, their manipulation, sequences of movement done repeatedly with resultant noises, collisions, clunks, knacks. They are so specific when you remember them that the world seems impossibly full, a miracle of containment. Or does it leak? (p. 85).

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