Spirals: A book review by Bob Morris

SpiralsSpirals: The Whirled Image in Twentieth-Century Literature and Art
Nico Israel
Columbia University Press (2015)

How and why the spiral may well be the defining image, symbol, and metaphor for the early-21st century

What’s with spirals? According to Nico Israel, “Spirals have a curious centrality in some of the best-known and most significant twentieth-century literature and visual art.” For various great artists, “the curved and recursive contours of the spiral do not simply express a relation to the past, but create an opening for potential newness. It is in the search for the now-ness of the spiral image’s newness that my study’s own novelty inhere’s. To illustrate his various points and illuminate his insights, Israel includes 60 Figures and 17 Plates. They nourish and enrich his lively and eloquent narrative.

His contention is that “spiral images are a significant way in which writers and artists across the twentieth century engaged the conceptual space of the world or globe. While also offering a novel mode of interpreting the conceptual space.” His primary sources include (in alpha order) Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Samuel Beckett, Walter Benjamin, Marcel Duchamp, Robert Smithson, Vladimir Tatlin, and W. B. Yeats. Israel views The book takes the spiral not only as its topic but as its method, arguing that spirals provide a crucial frame for understanding the mutual involvement of modernity, history, and geopolitics, complicating the spatio-temporal logic of literary and artistic genres and of scholarly disciplines.

These are among the several dozen passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Israel’s coverage:

o The Responsibility of the Spiral (Pages 21-31)
o Spirals and the Extreme Century (35-41)
o Accidental Tourists: Italian Futurists and the Speeding Spiral (49-59)
o Re-Envisioning Two Systems (73-76)
o Rough Beast: Yeats’s Whirled Future (76-85)
o Tatlin’s Tower of Power and the Stride of Modernity (92-104)
o The Babble of Translatability (104-110)
o Portrait of the Artist as a Thrusting Spiral (111-118)
o Ulysses and the Charybdic Dialectic (139-147)
o Inverted Spirals (176-181)
o Scales of Edges (181-186)
o The Spiral and the Grid: Winding Up (187-190)
o Beyond Utah: Surveilling the Megalopolis (203-210)
o The Grid, the Silkworm, and the Angel of Melancholy (210-226)

When concluding his comprehensive examination of the “whirled image” in twentieth-century literature and art, Nico Israel observes, “In art’s failure in modernity genuinely to transmit tradition in itself, a failure that is exacerbated in an ever-more-globalized world, Agamben paradoxically asserts its ‘truth’: since ‘knowledge of the new is possible only in the nontruth of the old,’ the old’s nontruths, including the grand nontruth of art’s separateness itself, must be art’s central domain. The spiral rings of [W.B. Seybald’s] The Rings of Saturn, which is also to say, the spiral rings of Spirals, from roaring race-car’s serpent-hood to lowly silkworm’s modest spinning, expose this arrest, this untruth, and this melancholically redemptive knowledge.”


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