~e; Text on Electricity (Ponge)

From bc <human@electronetwork.org>
Date Mon, 1 Apr 2002 23:16:11 -0600

[this article was sent to ~e.org roughly 1-2 years ago from
someone in Spain or Portugal whose name & info has since been
lost, yet their interest in electricity and architecture was
the purpose for sharing this hand-typed information regarding
this poet's creative exploration of electricity.  this text is
presented as-is, with fair-use of copyright, assuming it to be
accurate to the original based on the trust that this is an
accurate representation of the original work, yet i myself
cannot vouch for it. a link to the original work is at the
end of this document. it's finally been OCR'd, and shared
with others, a goal since first reading this work, which
only a poet could accomplish. all analysis is left out, yet
a translation could occur in the future, upon finding the
original text, and using gender-neutral language, so as to
differentiate between public & private readings of the work.]


    APPENDIX A:         
    " T E X T   O N   E L E C T R I C I T Y " 


^1 Commissioned by the Electrical Company to accompany
a more technical brochure meant to convince architects
to think about putting in electricity in their buildings
when they are drafting

    To conform ourselves to a style which has been ours
since the electrical current was placed at our disposal, we
shall immediately establish contact and suddenly throw light
on our intentions. 
    After all, why should our intellectual moves
be so different from those that we are in the habit of
executing everyday in our daily lives? The first homage to
electricity seems to me to speak about it in terms other
than formal academic ones, and, in brief, to treat it
intellectually in the same way we use it on a practical
    As for our readers, equally accustomed to these new
ways of living, we should not suppose a priori that our ways
will shock them. And why should anyone wish to enter a book
as if it were some kind of dark apartment or secret
labyrinth: feeling around, and held by the hand, like a
child or an invalid? We cannot believe that our reader wants
to be treated in this fashion, and we are convinced, on the
contrary, that he will be grateful for our frankness.
    Neither do we have in mind some future of vaguely
defined reader. We are looking at someone, or rather,
someone is looking at this book in his hands. He has opened
it. His eyes are now running over these lines, and, in all
probability, he is beginning to wish that he could grasp
something, something clear, that immediately makes an
impression on his mind, and that he could, just as easily,
store in his memory: that is, something already resolved, if
this can be said. Here goes.

    This book is addressed to architects,^1 but it has been
conceived in two installments. This is the first. Furthermore, 
the first one is distinct from the other. Why? Because the
second one, wholly technical, will only interest that part
of the architects' mind (or those who are closely associated
with that art) that functions professionally during workshop
hours in offices or on a construction site. Whereas this
first brochure, although it shouldn't in any way appear to
them to be unequal or without relationship to the second
(but should, on the contrary, from the beginning, as in
the long run, appear to them as happily complementing it),
should, however, touch in them the other man, I mean the
one who is still an architect, of course, but also a man
of leisure, a man whose mind and taste are receptive to many
other things, a man who would like to leave on his table --
in his office or in the living room --a handsome book, --who
would like to show it to his wife, to his wife's friends, to
his own friends, Is that clear? It seems clear to me. 
    Now, I have to be even a bit more frank and explain ~why
we are offering such a book to architects, their wives, and
their friends. It is obvious (how could it be otherwise?)
that our enterprise is not entirely without design. 
    Our business is with electricity. For the man in the
street, there are two aspects to electricity. On the one hand,
production and electrical mains (these mains are practically
all built in France). On the other hand, there are the
machines, the appliances, the orchestra of appliances that
use electricity. But ~among~them, if I can express it this
way, there are the dwellings that contain these appliances;
there are the homes and the offices of the men who use them.
And since there are buildings, there are architects who build
them, and there are also the clients, the wives, the friends
of these architects who commission these constructions, and
in general, confide in them, as they rightly should. 
    Now, and however curious this may appear in an a priori
manner, but there are explanations for it (we shall speak
about them later on), it seems that some architects still
forget about electricity at times. I mean, that some still
do not account for it --that is, as being of an importance
equal to that of either air or daylight --when they draft
their plans. This work has only one aim: and that is to be,
I do not say convincing --but rather unforgettable, so that
not a single one, as readers, will ever forget that 
electricity exists, that appliances exist, that they can
be found or will be found (in greater and greater numbers)
in each building, in each house, and that, consequently,
when plans are being conceived for a building, one must
arrange for the outlets, the "circulation," and the 
availability at the maximum number of places, of one
or more currents placed at everyone's disposal. Is that
clear? I believe it is.

    And now, we are going to turn off the ceiling lights
on this book and on our intentions and instead, turn on
the desk lamps or the bedside ones, and, with your permission,
we are going to become more intimate, and have a more familiar
conversation, in a slightly lower voice.
    Isn't it already evident, in parenthesis, how pleasant
it is thus to vary the lights instantaneously according to
our state of mind, or according to the setting, the atmosphere
or, as the saying goes, the ambience that one wants to create?
    Why should I, at this time, introduce this aside? Believe
it or not, simply as a question of modesty on my part. Because
I am going to speak about myself about the person who was asked
to write this text and given the job of seducing you. We are
going to ask ourselves why. Continuing in this same spirit
of frankness, but frankness excludes neither diffidence ...
nor modesty, which so agreeably precedes intimacy, as you
shall see, and diffidence on all sides, of course.
    And so, a layman was called in. Yes, a layman, I must
admit it. But a layman or a particular kind. In short, as
certain category of (intelligent) technicians having to
address themselves to another (equally intelligent) category
of technicians, chose a third kind of person as an intermediary,
a perfect layman in one and the other or the two techniques.
This might give rise to a number of speculations. I will not
spare you all of them. 
    It is true that this layman is himself a technician in
another field. Which one? Language, quite simply. When I say
quite simply, that is a manner of speaking. We shall attend
to this simplicity in a moment. For the time being, let us
not complicate matters.
    There are several types of writers. Among those who might
interest technicians in their contacts with a general audience,
one finds public relations men, journalists, popularisers, then
writers strictly speaking, that is to say, those for whom the
perfection of the literary work seems to count more than
anything else, even more than the content of the work itself.
But perhaps there is still another type of writer, the one who
is concerned not only with internal perfection, and that which
determines it, but also with a particular relationship between
the work, its object or its content. It is among this latter
group that I have always wished to be placed, and undoubtedly
I must have succeeded in some way since I have had the honour
of being chosen. 
    Nevertheless, one should not hide the fact that choosing
any man of art involves a certain risk. Which one? Let us see.
Introducing a third technique, one ran the risk of a new
specialised language. Why indeed, should technicians of
language be the only ones to escape a law that now seems
to apply to all other techniques? Why shouldn't they also
not sink deeper and deeper into their speciality, into their
problems, leaving to some intermediary category (let us say,
critics, for example) the task of introducing them to the
public? Do we believe they are incapable of recognising that
need, and couldn't that need, in turn, prove to be legitimate,
since they also encounter many difficulties in their technique
--difficulties, that is to say, satisfactions? One would be
rather imprudent not to think so, and, dare I say, rather
ill advised.
    And yet, why did this risk have to be taken? Why was it
an intelligent one to take? Because, all things considered,
~our language is the only one that has, in the Tower of Babel
of techniques, some chance of being understood by one and all.
Its materials, in fact, borrowed from the common good -- Speech
-- are at least as ~intelligible as they are sensitive: on the
condition of being well handled.
    I doubt whether the previous paragraph could have been
read without some impatience, and yet, it had to be written.
Because of our three techniques have something noble in common,
that I had to clarify, and that is, they are all indispensable
to all the others. Architecture houses all the techniques.
Electricity sheds light on them and animates them. And
Speech? Well, Speech (in another sense, it is true) houses
them, animates them and sheds light on them, all at once. 
Electricians, o laymen! You had instinctively understood this.

    And now I must go on, that is, I refuse to keep on going
solely in my own direction. I must suddenly turn aside and
dig in: I must go back to my plan.
    According to my plan, at this moment, speaking in a
lower voice, lower still, I must still call myself a poet.
What does that mean? Well, a layman, but lay in all things,
systematically. That's right, and in a paradoxical manner,
because in all things he detects, inhales, and profanes the
sacred. Because, charmed by all things, or rather, each one
in its turn, he only rests satisfied when he has succeeded
in showering down his intimate resources on them for the
enjoyment of his readers.
    Now you understand why I had to speak in a low voice,
intensely low.
    Let me cut this short. You are prepared. Or perhaps
only bothered. Desirous (in any case) that something else
occurs immediately . ...    And now, the moment has suddenly
come to switch the ceiling lights back on.
    Be reassured, I only did that to turn them off just as
soon. But you felt, didn't you, how it is marvelously within
our power to throw, alternately on you, on myself, within
the locus of the evidence and activity, a strong, vivacious
and pitiless light, and then to plunge us again into the
night. And you will now taste the night, and you will taste
the poetry that will come from it, with a wholly different
violence, a wholly different voluptuousness.
    A short paragraph here (but a moment, if you please) --
to remind myself in my personal notebook to ask my architect,
in the house he is designing for me, to put in light switches
near the windows (and not just close to the doors and beds)
so that I can better savour the night.

    Here we are, then, in the night, and here is the open
window. Whether the sky is overcast, as the saying goes,
whether the darkness is without a break, and we should, for
example, expect a storm, or that myriad stars, on the
contrary, appear in the firmament, our basic feeling remains
the same: we are placed, all of a sudden, and once again, in
the presence of natural forces, and the infinite -- spatial
and temporal at the same time.
    If we were, first of all, going to feel spatial infinity,
the astronomical one, we now know that it is only a matter
of electricity. Our knowledge is not very old but Henri
Poincare having written on this subject beautiful and
striking formulas, we are now thoroughly persuaded. However,
with your permission, let us put that aside for the moment,
and let us rather plunge into temporal infinity, in to 
the Night of Time.
    The transition is easy, operating, for example, through
the intermediary of the notion of light years, and through
the idea (now a true cliche) that one of those brilliant
stars emitting light, might have been dead at the time
the Chaldean astronomers were observing the same sky,
at the time when Thales, a student in the Egyptian
sanctuaries, had already discovered, through other
sources, the electrical properties of yellow amber. 
    "Through other sources," I have said, and why did I
put it that way? Because, all the entries in dictionaries
dealing with electricity, all the manuals and all the
histories of sciences have accustomed us to mark the
beginning of electricity with Thales, and with yellow amber
-- it being understood that one had to wait for Gilbert,
Queen Elizabeth's physician, for electrical properties to be
attributed to all terrestrial bodies, and Franklin, who
established the relationship between these phenomena and
those of atmospheric electricity.
    Of course, the best among these manuals tell us
(almost immediately) that certain laws pertaining to
atmospheric electricity seem to have been known well
before Franklin, even before Thales himself, by certain
priests or initiates, such as Moses, Solomon, Numa, and
even the Gauls. It doesn't matter: everything always begins
with Thales, and in Thales,, with yellow amber, and it is
always claimed that no relationship had ever been made,
before the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, between
the phenomenon of thunder and the attraction of light
particles by sticks of amber that have been rubbed.
    Nevertheless, I must admit, that here I am disturbed by
something that irresistibly leads me to doubt. Being, as I
am (as is everyone) sensitive to the great, and so to speak,
superior beauty of the things of ancient Egypt, of the
ancient East, of ancient Greece -- and when I say things, I
do not only mean sculpture or architecture but fables and
mental constructs (Greek geometry, for example) -- I cannot
easily accept the idea that in the area of scientific
knowledge, were considerably inferior to us. I am slightly
embarrassed when I have to accept the idea that modern man
any way superior to the man of these epochs. Instinctively,
I challenge that claim. Then, other things come to confirm
my intuition. Here they are.
    All the dictionaries and manuals that I have already
mentioned also say that the phenomena in question were given
the name electricity because succin or yellow amber was
called Electron in Greek. Well! all that is quite plausible.
But I am surprised that no one wants to know ~why yellow
amber had been ~specifically called Electron. Forgive me,
but my curiosity goes further. No doubt because words,
and this is an odd fact, interest poets even more
(that's apparent) than those who compile dictionaries.
And that may be because I can find them all past
sensitivity and knowledge.
    To such an extent that I readily associate (in my turn)
Electron with Electra, the one in ancient Greek mythology.
And immediately I go back to Electra, and I go back to the
origins of Electra.
    Daughter of Atlas, about whom we know, moreover, that
he carried ~heaven on his shoulders. And thus, grand-daughter
of Japet, and niece of Prometheus (ravisher of ~fire). Also,
sister of Cadmos (and let us note in parenthesis, ~primo,
that Thales himself descended from him, and ~secundo, that
he represented, in central Greece, what Danaos represented in
Argos, that is, Egyptian influences). One of the Pleiads,
and therefore a ~suicide, as they all had committed suicide,
in despair over the death of their sisters, the Hyades, in
whose collective name the word ~rain can be found, and who,
in turn, committed suicide when their father Atlas dies. And
finally, among the Danaids, because she is also related to
them, why shouldn't she be the same as Hypermenstra, the
only one not to have killed her husband, Lynceus, he who
had the gift of such ~piercing~sight~that~it~could~even~
go~through~fortified~walls? In any case, it was she who
brought the Palladium to Troy, but what do we mean by
"brought"? since we know that the idol ~fell~from~the~sky
near Ilos' tent.
    So much for Electra's ancestry. Furthermore, if indeed
Thales, in refusing to limit himself to the properties of
yellow amber, knew through some other sources, how to make
himself famous in predicting the solar eclipse of the year
610 before Jesus Christ, I would like someone to tell me. by
virtue of what decree disregarding all these indices, one
could not accept that he (and all our ancestors of those
ancient Mediterranean civilisations) knew about the
relationship between amber and thunder, and had some vague
idea, as correct as ours, of what we call (after them)
    A moment ago, I specifically mentioned Moses and the
names of other persons whom it does not seem absolutely
absurd that they might have been initiated to certain of
these phenomena, even though they may have only used
them to increase their own prestige. It would seem that
the famous Tabernacle of the Jews, the Holy Vessel, built by
Moses, given its description as it figures in Chapter XXV of
the Book of Exodus, might be considered as a very clever
condenser. Built, according to the Lord's commandments, of
shittin wood (insulating), covered on both its sides,
interior and exterior, of gold leaves (conductors), further
topped by a gold crown, destined, perhaps, thanks to the
classic "power of the points," to provoke a spontaneous
charge of the machine in the atmospheric field, which, in
those dry regions can, it is said, reach up to hundreds of
volts, two to four feet off the ground -- it is not
surprising that this Holy Vessel, always ready to strike the
impious, could only have been approached without danger by
the great priests such as Moses or Aaron, about whom, we are
told, elsewhere in the Scriptures, that their clothes were
"entirely woven of gold threads and decorated with gold
chains that hung down to their heels." The patient
commentator, from whom we have borrowed this hypothesis,
adds that this clever "grounding" allowed them to discharge
the condenser without harming their persons.
    Following this same trend of thought, and in the
same religion, one also knows that the historian Josephus 
describes the Temple of Jerusalem as being wholly surrounded
by gold-tipped rods, while a German scholar observed that,
during a period of a thousand years, the Temple was not
even struck once by lightening. One merely has to conjecture,
as our strong minds do without hesitation, that these rods
had been anchored to the ground by metallic conductors,
destined, for example, to drain water, in order to credit
Solomon with a ~knowledge that, certain comments from
the Scriptures seem to indicate, in fact, was not
second to Moses'.
    Needless to add, because everyone knows it, that
Moses left Egypt, where he lived, between the sixteenth
and fifteenth century before our era.
    But Lucan, in his ~Pharsalia, devotes a few lines
to a haruspex from Etruria by the name of Aruns, who,
living at the same time, knew how to bring together
the scattered fires of thunder and bury them in the
ground with a sinister noise. ~Datque~locis~numen:
thus he consecrated sites.
    Much later, Numa, one of the first kings of Rome,
knew how to invoke Jupiter's fire. And I was informed, by
one of the best sculptors of our time, that an open grotto
existed beneath the Capitol where new bronze statues of the
Gods were exposed, so that during one of the storms, so
frequent in Rome around five o'clock in the afternoon, they
might be lucky enough one day to be consecrated by thunder,
at the risk of melting some part of them, thus, in a way,
being signed by it.

    I do not know if my readers will appreciate as truly
poetic all that has just been recalled in the preceding
lines. A few might, unjustly, disdain it as a decadent
taste for archaeology; other, equally unjustly, might
judge, on the contrary, that is it exactly here, in fact,
that poetry is to be found, and even, that it is exclusively
here that it is to be found but on the condition that it be
written according to ancient forms. As for me, I share neither
the first or the second view, and knowing why I take pleasure
in it, I hope to shed some light on this later on.
    Be that as it may, much has really changed since then,
and another concept of man has prevailed, as well as a new
concept of his relationship to the universe. Just as we
did not discuss civilisation, or the magma of preceding
civilisations, we will not treat this one exhaustively,
although in some ways, this would be more meritorious,
since ~we~could~do~it for this one.

    Let us remain in the night for a while longer but
let us once again become aware of ourselves, and of the
very instant, this instant of eternity through which we
are living. Let us gather together, in this type of musing,
the most recent knowledge that we possess. Let us remember
all that we were able to read last night. And let it no
longer be at this moment of musing the (slight) expert
in ancient civilisations but someone who is acquainted
with Einstein and Poincare, Planck and de Broglie, Bohr
and Heisenberg.
    How should I then consider the spectacle that night
offers to my eyes? In ways that are yet unclear, I do
understand some of the things about it; and in my mind
I do have certain general notions concerning it. For
example, I was deeply impressed by the very striking
image, suggested by Henri Poincare, who, bringing the
two infinities closer together, made us conceive of
the atom as a solar system and its free electrons as
comets. And, indeed, I am no longer ignorant of the
fact that electrical phenomena are now interpreted
on the basis of the constitution of matter itself. And
though I am loathe to consider it as a new example of
that Illusion of Totality recently brought to light
by an illustrious logician friend of mine, I am
willing to concede for a moment that everything is
an electrical charge, and electrical field, etc. 
    So far so good. Neither have I forgotten Planck's
law, not so difficult to "accept" as one might imagine,
nor the principle of uncertainty, and the relativity of
Space and Time, and the notion of curved Space, that is,
the hypothesis of the indefinite extension of the universe.
    But, in the final analysis, if I must admit it, it is
the resemblance of that figure of the world with the one
that had been presented to us by Thales and Democritus
that impresses me's rather than its novelty.
    When I look, for example, at a model of the path
followed by free electrons, their unpredictable zigzags
and their slow incorporation into what we call an
electrical current, there is nothing there that does
not remind me, given the quantum notion of action and
of the principle of uncertainty (which only confirms
it), of the famous ~clinamen of Democritus and Epicurus,
applied to the corpuscles that they had so clearly
    And, of course, I admire Planck for having calculated
the "h" constant; and I admire the "progress" in mathematics,
as I had already admired, I ask you to believe it, the
slightly older calculations that were confirmed one day
by the discovery of Neptune at the very place it had been
expected. But then, how could I forget that Thales had
predicted the eclipse of the year 610 before our era,
and how could I stop wondering, if by chance, he might
not have calculated it, and if the means to do so had not
precisely been there in those Egyptian sanctuaries?
    And then, I reread Lucretius and I said to myself
that nothing as beautiful has ever been written; that
nothing that he had put forth, in any discipline, seemed
to me to have been seriously questioned, but that, rather,
everything he said had been confirmed. And I know that he
has been described as an anxious person, and as a madman,
and some people have claimed (and that would suit them)
that he eventually committed suicide. But since we are
still on our balcony, with the lights out, looking at
the nocturnal sky, I can also maintain, remembering Electra,
that one might find in it an example of divine behaviour;
and further observe, as it had happened to Electra and her
sisters, that he too had been placed among the stars, except
that this had only occurred in th memory of man, where his
light had not yet distinguished.
    And now, considering the consequences on the mind of
these last hypotheses, incomprehensible to us except through
the most advanced mathematics, and that seem to plunge
physicists, or at least the philosophers in their wake,
into a touching dizziness, if not (and I congratulate
them on it) into the slightest repentance -- I am beginning
to see, although still indistinctly, a few reasons that had
prevented me from explaining them up to now.
    Note that we still haven't turned the lights back on.
I have a feeling that this will soon occur but I must benefit
a little longer from the darkness and, in a psychiatric sense,
the possibilities of "constructions" that it contains; the
monstrous abstractions that it allows.
    Here, I would say, we are back at a time very similar to
that of the Cyclopes, far beyond classical Greece, far beyond
Thales and Euclid, and almost at the time of Chaos. The great
goddesses are sitting, once again, undoubtedly conjured up
by man, but he is terror stricken when he imagines them.
They are Angstrom, Light-Year, Nucleus, Frequency, Wave,
Energy, Psi-Function, Uncertainty. Like the Summerian
divinities, they too stagnate in a fantastic inertia
but approaching them makes one dizzy. And in their aprons,
written in abstract script, formulas are inscribed in
advanced math.
    No hymn, in everyday language, could ever reach them.
It would not even reach their knees. And that is why we
cannot hear any of them (that is a fact), nor be tempted
to compose a fitting one.
    Our forms of thought, our rhetorical figures, actually
date from Euclid: ellipses, hyperboles, paraboles, are ~also
figures of that geometry. What would you want us to do? Well,
exactly what we are doing, we artists, we poets, when we
work well. And I do not pretend, in my case, that this has
just happened. Assuredly not. It happens when we too dig
into our matter: into meaningful sounds. Heedless of ancient
forms and melting them back into a mass, as it is done with
old statues, in order to make cannons out of them, ammunition
. . . and, when necessary, new columns according to the
demands of the Times. 
    Thus, we may perhaps, one day, create new Figures that
will allow us to put our trust in the Word, in order to
traverse curved Space, non-Euclidean Space.

    Not bad at all. We have become as fat as a bull. Under
cover of the limitless night, we have blown up our gold-
beater's skin. And, if we hadn't been a poet, as of that
moment, I think now we have become one. I must admit there
is something agreeable about all that. But to tell the
truth, knowing myself as I do, if I have indulged in this
fantasy, It was only because I knew how to suppress it
instantaneously. What did I have to do? Well, suddenly
switch the lights back on.
    And here I am, without delay, back on my feet in the
visible world. And as I had better savoured the night, by
eliminating dusk, so the slow and sanguine dawn, I prefer
the rush of morning reason.
    At that instant, in the glare of the electric bulbs,
I see how wrong I had been about several things the night
had led me to construct.
    First of all, the evident difference between the laymen
that we are and those of different religions. And then, that
scientific progress does not have to be proven by formulas.
    Look at the way myriad students, and technicians,
scholars and handymen, as well as youngsters of all ages--
easygoing or scrupulous, careless or cautious, taciturn or
boisterous -- have climbed on the knees of those colossal
goddesses. And there, they have not only scribbled all over
them but have placed a thousand machines on them, a thousand
marvellous appliances.
    Admittedly, at times, this can be rather
unpleasant: a short circuit or an atom bomb. But we shall
take it in stride, with indulgence, philosophically. To tell
the truth, other things concern us, and we know exactly what
we need in the store that one day will be built. As soon as
it is "tested," we adopt it.
    We have now adopted washing machines, tape recorders,
and electric razors. Why not? We would be foolish to get
along without them. However, we will neither be the last
ones to use them, nor the first, definitely not the last
-- which makes more sense than one suspects. 
    I seem to be joking, and perhaps this is scandalous,
but let me have my say -- that's how people think in general.
Electricians have understood this well, they have observed,
for examples, that just for domestic needs, electrical
consumption has practically doubled every ten years. 
Or that the development of television, in the United
States alone, has raised the consumption to a quality
equal to that required by the combined needs of France,
both industrial and private. Yes, including all our large
factories, and the electrification of our transport systems!
    Electricians have understood this. Isn't about time
architects understood it, too? However, I spoke about
reciprocal modesty, and so I must once again speak about
    The way that man presently feels about electricity
not yet produced any major work, and major poetic work.
Couldn't this lag, among architects and poets, be due to
the same causes? Architects like poets are artists. As such,
they see things in eternity rather than in the temporal. For
all intents and purposes, they are wary of fashion. I speak
of the best of them.
    Wouldn't the very speed of the progress of science
prompt architects, like poets, to a certain resistance
insofar as their ~deep commitment, their affiliation,
their "connection" is concerned?
    I am here reminded of what happened when I was quite
young -- seven or eight years old-- and lighting was
modernised in our large house in the suburbs of Avignon.
The "hanging lamp" in the dining room was equipped with
a classic heavy oil-burning lamp. This lamp was modified
so that an "Auer" gas outlet could be fitted on it; as a
result, there was a much whiter and more brilliant light
-- that was "gas." But two years had hardly elapsed when
the workers were back. Here and there, lead pipes were
ripped out, elsewhere, they were crushed. And thus came
electricity. Switches were installed, and from that time
on, the hanging lamp was never lowered or raised again.
But, to tell the truth, I have never forgotten all that
ripping and crushing.
    Everyone can remember an anecdote of this kind, and
I was sufficiently troubled by this to cross the whole
of Paris in order to question, in the laboratories of
the rue Lord Byron, a friend of mine who is solely
concerned with the new form of fashionable energy, I
mean, nuclear energy. And I asked him whether electrical
wiring would soon be ripped out, if the counters would
be taken away, in order to install some cyclotron in
their place, in a house or on a floor. Well, believe me,
I left reassured. I had only needed a single comment, and
it seemed to me that I had already made it, and that was
that electricity was still necessary to disintegrate matter
and connections were still useful.
    Out in the street once more, I was stunned by all sorts
of lights. I then went to the home of a duchess friend of
mine where I dined by candlelight.
    Because of this, I soon became aware of a new fact.
Electricity is a lasting marvel, not only because it
determines our conquest of the future but because it does
not, in any way, stop us from appreciating the pleasures
of the past, and perhaps makes us more sensitive to them.
    There were thirty-six guests at our duchess': pilots,
surgeons, stage directors, but frankly speaking, I could
no longer see them except for their halo of electricity.
I saw those projectors with their pinpoint beams aimed,
some of them, on a cloud in order to measure its distance,
others on a sick organ or on an operating table, and still
others, on that part of a scene that had to be lit up at a
specific moment. And I said to myself that I too could aim
those beams on the pediment of a monument in order to bring
out, as never before. a particular detail. or to beg them,
in the jewelled nocturnal foliations, to give me the diamond
of their concerted volume. I said to myself that thanks to
them, I could dazzle an assailant or fascinate a prey. And,
further, as a contemplator of things, use them to double or
multiply my observations. Finally, to direct it al will and
provoke scandals or surprises, amazement or those grimaces
that sometime accompany the revelation of a truth. These
games, I said to myself, depend on my will, and they are

    Coming back home in a mental state you can imagine, I
felt simultaneously spurred on by emulation, an imperious
need to sit down at my desk and finally write a worthy hymn
to Electricity, but also, and such are the contradictions
in nature, a need, no less imperious, for coolness, for
silence and meditation in the night.
    So much so that, switching off the lights, I went out
on the balcony again.
    I asked myself where I had left my goddesses and their
knees? But right away, all things mingled and I saw these
goddesses sitting on mountains near Truyere, or in the
caverns of Brommat. I heard the thirty tons of water per
second tumbling down at Mareges. I imagined the millions
of volts, the giant transformers, and did not forget
the ~danger; and as of that moment, it no longer seemed
impossible for me to begin writing my hymn, writing a
certain type of poetry. Did you know that men died at
the moment they so much as touched those Hindu princesses,
those untouchables? Well, I find that rather to my liking.
    Electricity is indeed a princess, and the fact that she
has a copper complexion does not displease me. Exactly.
Nevertheless, would you believe it, she has blue eyes, or
rather, a particular blue reflection on the surface of her
copper skin. Very well. That even agrees with what we know
-- that ionised copper molecules are blue, whereas in their
neutral states they are red.
    But this princess is also a maid: how will I explain that?

    I realise that here I will have to turn the lights
back on.
    Yes, I've only to put my hand near the switch and the
solution is instantaneously found.
    One only has to grasp between the thumb and the index
the little cold ear of this child when, on the spot,
stripping off its showy silk dress, its wings spread out,
on the walls and on the ceiling -- there is a dazzling
person, its mother. Is it our Hindu princess, a thousand
of them, a thousand naked slaves that rush forward to
serve us?
    What nobility, what pleasure such domesticity procures!
    What a luxury to be served by this great metaphysical
figure, clothed in rustling and shimmering silks, and
naked besides, coiffed with aigrettes, adorned with rivers
of diamonds! Yet so agile! so zealous!
    Ah! ~zealous forces me to reject all those metaphor
and chose instead the firefly, and, in fact, turning on
the switch, it seemed to me at times that the approach of
this stunning person was a bit fearful, even shocking.
    She attracts then repels. She does not allow the
slightest familiarity.
    One says of the best maids that they are pearls, but
this one, is she not a diamond, all the diamond mines in
the world? Not quite, for all that is also crystalline,
sparkling and also much more fluid -- that quality must
be added.
    All the rivers, then, all the rapid and oxygenated
rivers of the world! All the trout rivers, with trout
fleeing below!
    Thus, clothed like a maharani, in evening clothes,
but naked also, sparkling and bejewelled -- ah! I would
only live at night for the pleasure of being served by
her! Brusk, elegant, proud, magnetic: a maid with a
princess' character. Her origins are of the noblest, and
she never degenerates.
    I am told that she serves me the way she does everyone,
and that any peasant can afford her. To tell the truth,
she is a prostitute, but what do I care since she never
loses her distinction, since she keeps her distance as
a matter of principle.
    She isn't a part, in any way, of what she lights.
Wind or orgy may blow: she neither staggers nor blinks.
And neither her body nor her soul is ever perturbed. Were
one to touch her, the untouchable does not bite back like
the flame, that savage! As a reminder, she jolts you or
kills you.

    Having such resources in one's apartment, such an
eagerness to serve and such a discretion at the same
time, how wouldn't one want to make it go through a
thousand tests, invent a thousand toys for it, offer
her a thousand instruments? If only to make her change
and rejoice in that. I would readily become a collector
of the instruments of her zeal. Better still, an inventor.
What's more, she suggests some to you . . . .
    With that in mind, I began dreaming a lot. I invented
a thousand appliances . . .. But, finally, I said to
myself, the day will come when ~everything, not only 
pertaining to universal actuality but to intemporality
(the planetarium is a good example) will automatically
be recorded, in order to become (I am not the only one
thinking about the visual) a perceptible pleasure, even
if they don't want it, for all those who would not have
experienced it directly.
    Thinking about that, I stared dumbly at my bulb
whose impassibility suddenly struck me. I was immediately
afraid that I had allowed myself to be carried away by
some lyrical excess, or that well-known illusion of totality.
I became very dissatisfied with my hymn and, had I written it,
I would have torn it up.
    In the end, I said to myself, because I was tired, I
think that electricity has acted in a rather negative manner
on poetry and art. We experience its influence in a general
modification of taste. I mean to say that it has contributed
in making us prefer clarity to the penumbra, perhaps pure
colours to subdued ones, perhaps speed to casual manners,
and perhaps a degree of cynicism to effusion.
    All that has a part, in all the arts, in shaping a
certain type of rhetoric: one marked by a spark leaping
between two opposite poles, separated by a hiatus in the
expression. Only the elimination of the logical link
allowing the spark to flash.
    Poetry and electricity accumulating from that moment on,
and remaining unknown until the lightning: that seems to go
hand in hand with quanta aesthetics. And, of course, how
could anyone write a hymn or a speech in the sustained
manner, after the discontinuous has triumphed in physics?
    Such is the state of things that must surely be
taken into account by architects, because there is no
turning back: taste has now been irreversibly modified
    . . . Now, I ask myself if I haven't been fooling 
both myself and the reader. All those affirmations, in
all directions, so contradictory . . ..  It is late.
Let us take a mirror. In front of my face, a powerful
lamp . . .. A thinker, finger on the temple? Or a clown,
putting on his make-up? Why, both of course -- an old
man who has understood.
    At this point, I started to laugh, feeling young again.
I rose, and pirouetting, spoke to myself once more, taking
up the tone of the beginning.

    It seems to me that we have indeed shown in everything
that we've just said, although in our own way (and how could
we have done otherwise, without becoming inauthentic and
losing all our capacity of persuasion), shown, I say, the
importance of electricity in dwellings, the function or
rather the functions of the greatest importance that it
performs, and further, the mark of nobility that it brings
to life in the home.
    To be sure, man still remains the protagonist. A new
man, it is said, and I am partially in agreement with that.
In fact, a renewed man; younger, cleaner, smoother, freer
(as one says of a disengaged wheel) and, on the whole,
more ~detached. I dare not, and yet I should say, a man
better differentiated.
    What I would really like to show, in conclusion, is
that such a man is all the more valuable in that this
transformation operates in accordance with his true nature,
that is, with that part which has always been responsible
for his difference among beings in the world.
    I speak of difference, purposely eliminating, as one
can see, the world superiority. And I hope that this nuance
will be given its proper due. As for those to whom the idea
of superiority is necessary, who need it in order to live,
and even to stand up, let them be free to adopt it, since
there is nothing in what I have just said, neither in what
I am about to say that can stop them from doing it. As for
me, the idea of my difference is sufficient, and the most
important seems for to be for me to accept, to be familiar
with, and, finally, to live one's difference, to want it.
In my opinion, it alone suffices to justify us; to make of
us, in the order and the harmony of the world, or if one
prefers less laudatory terms, in the machine, in the
clockwork of the world. a perfectly indispensable gear.
Connected to others but as important as any of them, and
thus, without any need to suffer any complex (inferiority or
nonjustification). I would even say that a sense of vanity
in one's superiority would seem to me to be not only
slightly ridiculous but even slightly dangerous. After all
it may not be a good thing for a gear to consider itself the
principal gear. It might then run away, spin at too fast a
rate, wearing and tiring itself We're familiar with that,
aren't we? Those depressions that follow exaltations! Why
should we put ourselves in such a situation? Why would we
want to risk, singing too loudly our own superiority and our
glory, see ourselves forced to stop singing one day, demean
ourselves, wallow in our feeling of helplessness; and, take
off a bit too rapidly down the stairs that lead to the
cellar . . . (toward taboos!) In the end, you've got to
choose for yourself That will not affect what I have to say.
    Whether, in fact, one considers it as a superiority or
simply as a difference, ~his difference, it seems clear that
throughout history, man's nature has been able, thanks to
certain faculties (pertaining to the ~mind) to evolve, to
adapt, and to perfect himself, all the while, staying simple
and naked. More to the point, capable of making tools,
weapons, armour, instruments of detection, for war, for
transportation; capturing devices; making his food easier to
digest: truly an endless series of appliances, increasingly
numerous, varied, and perfected, but ~all~of~the~absolutely
    Isn't it evident that he has managed to adapt himself
in comparison to other species, and let us say to mammals
(the same thing holds true for fish, reptiles, or birds).
If a pig has to live in the forest, it must completely
~change itself; its tusks must grow, etc. If a horse must
feed itself in a region where there is less grass to eat
than leaves, bananas or dates place don a high branch,
then it is ~forced to lose many qualities of the horse
in order to become a giraffe. Elsewhere . . . but then
I would never finish .... Let us just conclude that man
can be forced to live under this or that latitude; he
will not be forced to lose any of his qualities. He will
invent the tools and the weapons appropriate to his new
condition in the world, and to the dangers or the resources
inherent to it.
    And when I say that he has managed to perfect his
equipment, the easiest thing to do is to compare him to
those anthropods which, by the way, it would not be a waste
of time to observe, in order to invent better appliances.
Look at lobsters or shrimp for example. Isn't it marvellous
to admire their armour, their reckoning and detecting
systems, their combat and capturing devices? And yet! how
very inconvenient it must be never to leave one's armour, or
any of one's other weapons, or any of one's devices and
always live with that equipment on ones back! What am I
saying! Not only on one's back but intimately part of one's
flesh, and thus of one's psyche, and, therefore, forcing one
to become wholly different, a destroyer, for example, or a
periscope, etc. How awkward, if one wanted a better vision,
and a rather free and easy walk, a degree of control over
the situation! One might say, in all the various meanings
implied in the word, including the slang meaning, that,
~what~became a lobster, was monstrously ~refashioned by
Nature, both in its general and in its specific aspects.
    Man has been spared such transformations! What is man?
A lobster that can check its shell in the cloakroom, its
periscope, its hand-vices, its fishing rods. A spider that
could put its web in a hangar and repair it with e tips of
its fingers, instead of having to abandon it in order to
weave another, or more exactly, to slaver out a new one.
One can imagine how many examples I could find in nature
to add to these. The point has been made. I think you've
understood. Besides, all you ye got to do is look at the
first arrival. Stepping out of his plane or his car his
car which he leaves in the garage, dressed in his suit
which he leaves in the bathroom, he appears to us just
as he was on the first day: as naked, naked as a worm,
as pink, as integrally clean and free as possible. With
the exception of angels, I do not know of any animal
that is as naked. 
    Wait a minute! I'm sure that none of you architects
have overlooked the fact that I have constantly brought
into play the notion of cloakroom, hangar, workshop,
closet. That is because, when one has tools, there must
necessarily be a place to put them; and when one is naked,
there must be some house, some cavern or palace to provide
needed shelter. And that is the reason why man, from the
beginning, has had to find shelter, not only to nestle his
companion and his offsprings, but to put his detachable
members in a place where he could find them again when he
needed them. True, there have been, and there still are
nomadic populations, but they are generally followed by
carts -- and after all, it must be admitted that the future
does not lie in that direction. I myself have seen, in the
Mediterranean region, fishing boats decline in number while
fishermen's installations on shore have become, year by
year, more important.

It also appears -- and here I introduce a third element in my
argument -- it further appears that man no longer wanted to
provide all or part of the necessary power needed to assure
the functioning of these appliances, that is to say, of his
members or independent organs. To that end, he ingeniously
used either (keeping to his muscular power) animals trained
or domesticated for this purpose (cattle, deer, or horses);
or, observing the impetuosity of wind and water (and always
keeping tot he mechanical level), utilising their energy to
make his mils go round, and even his elevators. He then
discovered the resources of the elasticity of metals and
springs, and from that, the movements of the clock. Since
then, he has gone a little farther still. The kinetic energy
of gas and steam has provided him with many new types of
machines. Ultimately, he succeeded in mastering electrical
energy and he was able to foresee, to such an extent, the
ways it was going to applied, to such an extent observe its
power, that now, his major appliances use this form of
energy. They in turn naturally suggest others at every
moment. Curiously enough, this is true to such an extent
that the need for electricity does not increase as fast ion
the most undeveloped nations that are just beginning to
equip themselves, as it does among those nations that are
already the most accustomed to its use because they have
fallen under the spell and, one might even say, that they
have been converted to it.
    I will not insist on the marvellous advantages of
appliances that work in this way; I think I have said
enough about that. In this final chapter I only wanted
to show that their discovery and their constant development
fit perfectly well in the order of the differential
characteristic. in fact, in what is ~perpetual in man.
I said that man was an animal with independent members
and organs that he could leave or take up again, and
in which he did not want to entangle himself. He will,
therefore, always prefer to command form a distance, and
in the least complicated manner. Well, electricity has
no peer in this regard, since it is the power that is
transmitted the fastest, with the least loss, and
through the least cumbersome wires, the thinnest
and probably the least visible ones. But obviously
it must have a readily accessible "outlet."
    From this point forward, it seems to me that
the conclusion is evident since I have brought all
the elements together.

    You have guessed it, dear architects, those
appliances man has invented must be attached not
to himself, thank God, but to his dwelling. These
appliances are now electric. Conclude for yourselves.

    If you want man to remain true to his marvellous
~detachment, and enjoy all those tools and instruments
that he has made without being hampered by their
proliferation, well, since he began to free himself
by using electricity, and since all appliances have
become, step by step, electric, conclude for yourselves.
    If you want to contribute to his becoming that
angel, all pink and naked that was put here by Nature,
and who, in the end, will never change again, despite
the proudest metaphysical musings, or the nostalgia he
feels at times for the state of nature -- but he will
no longer have anything to regret, and on this point
all the pessimists will be in error;
    If you want him to be that angel and athlete, both
naked and armed, witty and strong, innocent and malicious,
airy and dreamy, friend of the organ and of the circus,
in a nutshell, the Shakespearian Ariel that he is;
    The answer is easy. Build him his dwellings, and at the
very moment of conceiving them, think about electricity. All
the electrical mains have been foreseen. All the symphonic
instruments are in place. What am I saying, all? A thousand
others will be added on. All you have to do is provide for
the path of pleasures in our dwellings.
    Help us make him again that Ariel.
    We are counting on you.
    So be it.

    But I realise that I am speaking to technicians who
are perhaps slightly suspicious of this lyricism and
will not really appreciate this prayer assimilating
them to the gods. Consequently, I will find another
way of ending, rather like the way I began.
    I had opened my folder in a bright light to define
my intent. To close my folder, in the same light, I must
sum up what I have said. 
    I think I have shown that electricity has its titles
of nobility, and even of royalty: yes, its deeds are
very ancient.
    I think I have dashed all hope that it might be
    I have shown several ways that it gives us a chance
to conquer the future, while allowing us to better
appreciate the past.
    Also shown that it has unquestionably upset our ways
of living and modified, in an irreversible manner, our
    ~But it has done so by placing us once again in our
true state of nature, in such a way that no moralist
could ever find fault with it.
    Finally perhaps, and in the process, I have explained
why, as to electricity, poets (and architects as well) have
lagged behind. 
    These reasons are inherent in the nature of shadows.
All that was needed, I dare say, was to throw some light
on them in order to disperse them . . ..
    So be it.


Francis Ponge, ~The~Power~of~Language: ~Texts~and
~Translations, ed. & trans. Serge Gavronsky (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1979), pages 168-217.


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errors are probable, due to hand typing and OCR work.

see more about Francis Ponge's works at the following:

Centre d'Etudes Poetiques (.fr)

Ponge, les racines de Francis Ponge (.fr)


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