DAVID GREENSLADE: Diagrams – A Mythic Proposition

Hephaestus was and is the engineer of the gods – no one has replaced him as far as I know – the International Space Station, possibly the most complex artefact humanity has made is, as far as I can tell, not an act of hubris but more and more an act of humility. But let us return to The Smith, or Vulcan as he was also known. Hephaestus made things, simple objects, compound objects, intricate and complex objects. The other gods just seemed to find objects lying around – a sickle here, coins there; either that or they used crafted artefacts much closer to nature – clothing, winged sandals – a combination of leather and feathers. True, Hermes made a musical instrument – a lyre from tortoise shell and sinew but it was entirely organic. Hephaestus it was and is who transforms earth into ore, ore into material and from that transformed material contrived and still contrives devices that amaze even those that live on Olympus.

We’ve heard that Hephaestus was misshapen and badly treated, more than once thrown from heaven and rejected as a child. We’ve also learned that he was at the beck and call of others – those who wanted armour, those who wanted weapons, toys, gadgets, vehicles, palaces and favours with useful tools, surgical favours, building favours, handyman favours – the kinds of little emergencies that send you round to your uncle’s to borrow an electric drill, a wheelbarrow or a USB. Hephaestus may have been lame, overworked and in demand but he was divine. Most of the things he made he made for others. The one thing we know that he made exclusively for himself was a net to capture his wife Aphrodite while she was screwing that brutal and violent superstar Ares. This net was invisible.

But let’s, for now, disregard Aphrodite’s inevitable love affairs – that’s what we worship when we fall for her. And let’s overlook Ares’ routine preference betraying the source that gives him weapons. It happens all the time. Athene is the goddess of noble war and of defence. Ares is the god of sheer strife – ethnic cleansing, arms deals, blood diamonds, scorched earth and sexual trafficking. At moments like these Ares and Aphrodite deserve each other.

Hephaestus’ infinite number of objects finally reach their apogee, when the god carries from his forge something that no one could even see (could he see it?). This object was not used by any or for any other but himself. As a thing, as an object, as a device, a trap it was not in the service of others, but served exclusively, the plot and the purpose, the desire, feeling and emotion of The Engineer of all made things. The effect of the net was to capture, to confront and to confirm the painful suffering and humiliation of its maker in the face of adultery.

If we elevate the status of objects well away from lowly, if difficult, material things to abstract objects such as the object of a sentence or the object of a thought, of a project, a campaign or an object of mind such as mother, father, home, society, law, country, loyalty, history, theology, the common good etc. then Ares and Aphrodite and all their attributes become objects. Their adultery becomes an object – object at first for Hephaestus and then for the entertainment of the incestuous community on Olympus. But Hephaestus is the god of material things and not of lofty abstractions.

When we, mortals, handle a thing, an object – whether simple or complex – organic or abstract, we may consider it ‘our chair’ (our position), our pencil (our script), our car (our mobility). And when the car is stolen we feel our outrage is justified. Our car (our object) is being handled and used by thieves. When our favourite picnic spot at the beach or at the lake is already taken we feel our disappointment – our temporary hearth has become the hearth of others. When we lend an object such as an office stapler and see it used more or less efficiently, neglected or respected, returned replenished or used up – we are never really indifferent as to how ‘our’ stapler (it may not even be ours) gets used.

In a word, the invisible net that captures objects is a diagram, a plan. Many, if not most diagrams, actually look like nets. The object does not carry the diagram with it once the object is made or the diagram has achieved its purpose. The made object – whether abstract or material – discards the diagram like an invisible skin, losing it along the way. The more complex the object often the more net-like the diagram that conceives, captures, delivers and releases it. Some diagrams resemble nets so much that the assembled complex object also resembles a net – wiring systems, plumbing systems, air conditioning, in fact the hidden material dimension of any modern structure, from buildings to trains and planes to space stations.

Objects are both loyal and disloyal, imperious and subservient. Adulterers – they love themselves, they love everyone and they don’t love anyone. They also have little self-respect – they’ll do anything for anyone, even kill. Objects need us to respect them. Objects love the way they get used – treasured they last longer, do more, perform better and look good. Objects love the way they act upon the world – used wickedly the world becomes a broken place. But no-one can truly capture every aspect of an object except their mythic maker Vulcan, The Smith, The Engineer, The Designer. Once an object is achieved the diagram that caught it remains invisible. We glimpse it briefly and then it goes. The net of Hephaestus is the diagram.

David Greenslade’s books include the novel Celtic Hot Tub (Gwasg Carreg Gwalch 2003) and the poetry collections Weak Eros (Parthian 2002), Adventure Holiday (Parthian 2007), Zeus Amoeba (Two River Press 2009). His latest collection, Homuncular Misfit, will be out soon. He writes in Welsh and English and has collaborated with painters, film-makers and theatre companies, both within Wales and internationally.

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  • Land Diagrams and twinned studies « Write off the map

    [...] have a sample of the PDF online. Greenslade has also written a piece for Junction Box, Diagrams – A Mythic Proposition, touching on Hephaestus, the engineer of the gods, and presenting the idea of the diagram as his [...]

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