Hieroglyphs in Philo…

Julia from Borges’ country has sent us an observation together with the consequent considerations worthy of her renowned compatriot.

Argentine, Buenos Aires, university, enigmatic/hieroglyphic graffiti: crow with human eye
The eye, symbol of vigilance, confronted me with force as I was going down a side stairway at the Department of Philosophy and Literature of the University of Buenos Aires. This strange inscription on the wall said nothing and explained nothing and it appeared very different from the images of political groups that cluttered the walls in my times as a student.

It’s not that I no longer set foot on this building of my Department, but nowadays I go there once a week and only for a couple of hours in order to give my class and then hurry away. So it’s been years since I wandered along the corridors of the building with the insouciance and the ease of an undergraduate – who is unconscious of this ease as long as he is an undergraduate. But last month I again found myself to be a student in the building of the Department where I had been an undergraduate and, all the better to submerge myself and concentrate on the experience, I was there for five hours every afternoon during a whole week. All this excursus is aimed at the attempt of transmitting my spiritual state of reminiscent discovery at the moment when I was confronted with the image of which we speak: an eye and a bird.

An eye, which, although drafted with spray paint and in very elemental traces, reminded me of the eyes that appeared in the Egyptian-like hieroglyphs which were so popular in the Renaissance, or those that used to be shown in various emblematic compositions (which the master of this blog will be able to illustrate better than myself.)

Alciato, Emblema 16, Ne credasAll right, to answer Julia’s challenge, here you are as an example the well known Emblem 16 of Andrea Alciato: Ne credas (Don’t be an easy-believer), from the 1591 Leiden edition by Plantin.

With in this Renaissance frame of mind, I pictured the bird that accompanied the eye – perhaps without paying much attention to its form – like some kind of a hawk, a street imitation of the Egyptian Horus.

I continued my way down the stairs wondering what it was doing there and what its meaning might be. And the answer appeared accompanying my way down (katabasis). On the following landing of those side stairs, the same black paint, but especially the same bird, made with a stencil that now was accompanied by its anchorage “Breed Crows.”

Argentine, Buenos Aires, university, enigmatic/hieroglyphic graffiti: crow with inscription “Cría cuervos”
Of course! It was a crow! And what do crows do when you breed them (according to the Spanish proverb)? “they will pick out your eyes”… (“Cría cuervos, y te comerán los ojos.”)

I found charming the construction of the message by discontinuous fragments of images and texts and, of course, I couldn’t avoid thinking about the many contacts that it had with the symbolic and emblematic practices of the Renaissance and the Baroque.

The image of the eye and the (now we know) crow was, then, a proclamation that implied a warning and, in fact, it was an accusation. The cautious and vigilant eye of the emblems and hieroglyphs, plays a double role here: to be the sentinel, and, at the same time, the possible victim, of the black crows that prowl about. And, in that passionate tension, it looks at us, transmitting its message with profound power.

In any case, it might be pointed out that the difference of proportions is eloquent. The enormous eye leaves the traitorous crow in an inferior situation. Thus the vigilant role of that prudent eye acquires a greater importance which cautions us.

But these graffiti weren’t the only interesting ones in this my touristic visit to my own Department. The following image completely entrapped me and made me think of the refined symbolic representation that was arising among the students.

Argentine, Buenos Aires, university, enigmatic/hieroglyphic graffiti: fishes eating each other with inscription “¡Uníos!”
I read it as an anti-imperialist proclamation (in a very wide sense: the union of the little ones that are able to stand up to the mighty), but undoubtedly many interpretations can be given to it. What is doubtless is that the old and well known aphorism (“The big fish eats the small one”) is reversed thanks to the power afforded by union (we all know that “Union is power.”)

Unlike the up to now mysterious image of the crow and the eye, with no explicit attribution, we know that this other is the logo adopted by a student political group, La Juntada.

The condensation and expression of concept is very well achieved and, though I was told that the image was not created by them (maybe this logo can be found in other parts of the Planet, and it would be interesting to find out in what specific function), I thought that they had achieved a perfect fulfillment. (This is where they got the idea, they told me when I contacted them; and these / these / these are other places in the Internet where I found the motif.)

Thus, modern conception counterproposes an attitude which transforms reality (by acting on what is given by nature, we could say) to the traditional, conservative position such as this emblem of Sebastián de Covarrubias (Centuria I, emblema 88 de sus Emblemas morales, Madrid, 1610)

Covarrubias, Emblemas morales, 1611, Emblem I.88The water is so fertile that if there were / peace among the fishes inhabiting it / then it would pour them on the earth / in a great abundance every day. / But as they are all incited by gluttony / each of them makes great effort / to eat the other: and the bigger ones / usually swallow the minor ones alive.

Covarrubias, Emblemas morales, 1611, Emblem I.88, commentaryThe Latin proverb quoted by Erasmus in his Chiliades [the Adagia] says thus: Magni pisces, parvos comedunt. The big fishes eat the small ones. And taken in a moral sense, it is the rich who fatten on the sustenance of the poor and of those less powerful. The emblem is clear, and the motto MAIORA MINORIBVS OBSVNT (The bigger ones block the road of the smaller ones) is taken from Book 9 of the Eclogues of Battista Mantovano.

It is true that Covarrubias employs a certain sorrowful tone on verifying such a harsh truth and we are aware of the denouncement of the rich “that fatten on the sustenance of the poor”. But in any case there is no doubt that this example of the fish is shown as something impossible to modify. Moreover, I cannot completely decide whether what the epigram expresses about the abundance of fish that we would have on land if the fact that the fish eat each other did not exist, is something positive – there would be more food for men – or negative – fish would invade us and take over power!)

How many transformations have taken place so that if formerly, nature was used as an allegory of human society, now nature is transformed ironically and allegorically with the advances of social organization. Man imposes his cosmos on the world and no longer sees himself as a microcosmos.