Fluidity and solidness in culture

Updated: Mar 25

“Through history and prehistory, people have had an immediate understanding of the difference between a liquid and a solid, without needing scientists to explain the difference to them.”

—Dennis Dutton, The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, & Human Evolution (2010)

If cities were built by the sound of music, then some edifices would appear to be constructed by grave, solemn tones,—others to have danced forth to light fantastic airs.”

—Nathaniel Hawthorne (from Ballou 1894)

If it’s true that animals are generally interested by the idea of mixtures of solidness and fluidity then evidence of this should be available in language and also in other cultural phenomena such as art, mythology and religion. In “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams, the wheelbarrow is glazed with rain water. In “Red, Red Rose,” by Robert Burns, “luve” is like a melody that will last until the “seas gang dry” and “the rocks melt wi’ the sun.” In Robert Frost’s “Birches” the trees are loaded with ice in the sun after the rain as a colorful rising breeze cracks and crazes their enamel and the warmth of the sun makes them shed crystal shells. In “Harlem” by Langston Hughes, the deferred dream “dries up like a raisin in the sun,” crusts and sugars over “like a syrupy sweet” or explodes. Gilgamesh is called “a raging flood-wave who destroys even walls of stone.” The never brewed liquor comes from “tankards scooped in pearl” in Emily Dickinson’s “I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed,” and the inns are molten blue. The rhymes of Mother Goose “I’m a Little Teapot,” “Ding Dong Bell,” “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” “A Plumb Pudding,” “Old Chairs to Mend,” “The First of May,” “London Bridge,” “Polly and Sukey,” “I Saw a Ship A-Sailing,” “A Ships Nail,” “A Walnut” and “If All the Seas Were One Sea,” contrast fluidity and solidness thematically and many of Goose’s other rhymes contain less obvious fluid/solid juxtapositions, as between drying sheep tails and Little Boe Peep wiping her eye, or between pennies, milk and pudding in “Come out to Play.”

The main styles, or “orders,” of classical Greek architecture—the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian—incorporated increasing amounts of fluid-like ornamentation over time, a transition Ralph Waldo Emerson called “the flowering of geometry” (Ballou 1894). The simple, plain and rounded tops of the Greek Doric order gave way to the volutes, or spirals, of Ionic columns, and then to the most ornate Corinthian columns with spirals, leaves and scrolls. At each step the architecture became more fluid. Buildings increasingly looked as though parts of them were melting. Architectural fluidity is not confined to the buildings of the Greeks and Romans. Emerson used the flower analogy in describing Gothic cathedrals, as “a blossoming in stone, subdued by the insatiable demand of harmony in man. The mountain of granite blooms into an eternal flower, with the lightness and delicate finish as well as the serial proportions and perspective of vegetable beauty.” (Emerson, from Ballou 1894). Floral, swirling, twisting and waving forms are also common, unaccountably, in gates, railings, street-lamps, stairways, handles, candelabra, door knockers, chandeliers, swords, shields, flags, pottery and many other things.

According to Snorri Sturluson, in the Norse mythology creation story fire from Muspellheim and ice from Niflheim come together in a void:

“That part of Ginnungagap… that lies towards the north was thus filled with heavy masses of gelid vapour and ice, whilst everywhere within were whirlwinds and fleeting mists. But the southern part of Ginnungagap was lighted by the sparks and flakes that flew into it from Muspellheim. Thus… whilst freezing cold and gathering gloom proceeded from Niflheim, that part of Ginnungagap looking towards Muspellheim was filled with glowing radiancy, the intervening space remaining calm and light as wind-still air. And when the heated blast met the gelid vapour it melted it into drops, and, by the might of him who sent the heat, these drops quickened into life, and took a human semblance” (Thorpe 2020).

Mythological tales of divine dismemberment, in which parts of a creator are broken up into parts of the world often distribute the material of the body in a sensible way, accounting for similarities between the state of the part of the world and the part of the creator it was made from. Solid body parts become solid parts of the earth. Liquid body parts become liquids like streams and rivers. And intermediately situated, fleshy parts, those which are not quite solid and not quite fluid, are often used to make living things.

This is the case in the ancient story of the Chinese creator god Pangu, who develops in a chaotic cosmic egg scenario, where the forces of Yin were mixing with the complementary and contradictory forces of Yang. Conventional characteristics of Yin must have been mixed with the opposite characteristics of Yang accordingly: softness mixed with hardness, light mixed with darkness, wet with dry, expansion with contraction, stillness with movement, and freezing with boiling. Pangu materialized in the egg, presumably as a result of the mixing, and proceeded to separate Yin and Yang into the earth and sky. Pangu’s arms and legs became the directions. His eyeballs became the sun and moon. Pangu’s breath turned into the clouds and wind, his teeth and bones turned into the rocks and minerals, sweat became dew, hair became grass, flesh became soil, and the rivers were made out of his blood. In the creation myth of the North American Okanagan Indians, also known as the Isankuafli or Syilx, who lived traditionally in an area spanning Washington State and British Columbia, Old One made Earth Woman by stretching and rolling Earth-like dough (Leeming 2010). As in the story of Pangu, trees and plants were Earth Woman’s hair. The soil was her body. The stones were her bones. And her breath was the wind. Old One blew on small parts of Earth Woman to make the animals, and humans were made of red clay. Ruby and Brown (1969) describe the creation story of the Spokane Tribe of Washington State. The story has elements of light and darkness, high and low, hot and cold, loud and quiet, fluidity and solidness, bright solidness, bright solid destruction, roundness disruption in various forms, the idea that birds are hotter than bears and the concept that people are a careful mixture of fluid and solid things, an insightful concept which foreshadows the discovery of liquid crystals:

"The Spokanes explained the origins of the world and of themselves in their native folklore, which clearly reflected the biblical matter that had been impressed upon them by white missionaries. Amotkan, the Creator, made light only after all the animals had congregated to create it for themselves. The animals first erected a high pole and sent Woodpecker up it, but the pole was too hot for him. They next sent Coyote up the pole. But he was too noisy, all the time shouting down to his children. Bear volunteered, but he found it too cold atop the pole. The sound of thunder shattered their efforts then. It loosened a piece of red rock, which turned into a handsome red man. He wanted a brother, so Amotkan gave him one made out of the root of an herb called spowaunch. The two brothers went to a lodge occupied by a witch, Lady Bullfrog. She became so enamored of the brother formed of the root that she lept on his face—and stuck there. In pulling loose, she tore out one of his eyes. Then he volunteered to ascend into the sky and be the light for the earth, for he did not want people to see his face, now missing one eye. Thus, he became the sun, and when people looked at him, they had to close one of their own eyes. The other man joined his lonely brother in the sky. But before he did so, Lady Bullfrog had jumped onto his face, too. He became the moon. Today, if one looks carefully at the moon, one can see Lady Bullfrog clinging to his face.”

“Because he was lonesome, Coyote, after several failures, made Spokane man. In his first failure, he molded a man of pitch, who melted. He tried clay, but the rains washed the clay man away. He sculpted a man out of hot rock; it cracked. He wove a man of reeds; but this man caught fire and burned. Coyote then mixed all these elements together and—adding berries, smoke, and fire—created Spokane man. With these same elements, he created Spokane woman, and Amotkan, the Creator, gave her life. Man and woman soon became wild, caring little for the safety of the others who had sprung from them. A flood came then and covered the land, destroying all except a few people. The survivors banded together for safety, elected a leader, and multiplied. In time, the leader divided the people into small groups. They became the various tribes.”


Works cited

Ballou, Maturin M. Treasury of Thought. Forming an Encyclopædia of Quotations from Ancient and Modern Authors. Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1894. Google Books.

Dutton, Denis. The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, & Human Evolution. Bloomsbury Press, 2010.

Ruby, Robert H., and Brown, John Arthur. Children of the sun; a history of the Spokane Indians. United States, University of Oklahoma Press, 1969.

Leeming, David Adams. Creation Myths of the World: An Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. Santa Barbara (Calif.): ABC-Clio, 2010. Google Books. 28 Sept. 2017. Web.

Thorpe, Benjamin. The Elder Eddas of Saemund Sigfusson Translated from the Original Old Norse Text Into English. N.p., Read Books Limited, 2020.

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