From Stonypath to Little Sparta: navigating the work of Ian Hamilton Finlay

Rodger, Calum (2015) From Stonypath to Little Sparta: navigating the work of Ian Hamilton Finlay. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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The work of Ian Hamilton Finlay spans a fifty-year career, numerous media (many invented by Finlay himself) and thousands of years of Western history. Yet despite its range, it is the product of a singular artistic vision. The object of this thesis is to provide a philosophical and aesthetic framework through which Finlay’s work can be read comprehensively. Centred on the notion of the ‘non-secular’ – a term coined by Finlay in response to bureaucratic, social and artistic antagonisms – it proposes that Finlay’s entire body of work can be read as a project towards realisation of ‘non-secular’ awareness. This comprises, firstly, a longing for an ‘essential’ language and absolute truths, and a respect and reverence for those aspects of culture which strove to, if not discover, then construct and have faith in those truths. It also comprises, secondly and as a consequence, reconciliation with the fact that these absolutes can never be fully realised in the practice of everyday living. This prompts further reconciliation with the limits of our comprehension of the universe and, in the last analysis, our own mortality. This reconciliation is ‘non-secular’ insofar as it does not dispel, but rather emphasises, the notion of a ‘beyond’ inherent to these limits, without defining that ‘beyond’.

Using the metaphor of a navigator’s compass, the thesis defines the borders of the ‘non-secular’ through study of Finlay’s work, his correspondence, and his relationship with his contemporaries and critics. It gathers together, develops and responds to previous criticism on Finlay in order to present a unified reading of the poet’s oeuvre which, though it cannot hope to cover every aspect, suggests how his work might best be approached, navigated and read. To this end, the thesis also draws from a number of philosophers working in the continental, hermeneutic tradition, who present ways of thinking the ‘non-secular’ which complement Finlay’s project and, in some cases, directly influence it. As the title would suggest, though the thesis explores Finlay’s work in all media, its locus is Stonypath/Little Sparta, the poet’s family home and magnum opus. Here, the tensions between life and art which give rise to the ‘non-secular’ are at their most palpable.

Despite Finlay’s reputation as a visual and plastic artist, this thesis opens with the premise that his work is best approached as poetry, beginning with an extended Introduction which shows how Stonypath/Little Sparta develops from modernist poetry. Coining and defining the term ‘topographical poetics’ to describe Finlay’s site-specific works, it then constructs a formal and methodological approach for reading these ‘poems’. Preliminary discussion of the ‘non-secular’ follows, leading into a four-chapter structure concerned with sketching out the limits of the ‘non-secular compass’.

The compass consists of four poles – the Poetic, the Homely, the Modern and the Classical – corresponding to Chapters One through Four respectively. Each pole serves as an absolute point by which to consider the idea of the ‘non-secular’. The exception is the Homely, a pragmatic anchor from which develops the ‘non-secular’ in its reconciliatory aspect and, ultimately, provides the unique foundation for Finlay’s work. This ‘non-secular compass’ is presented as a critical paradigm for reading Finlay. With the work itself, it may also be used as an interpretative tool which opens up to fresh and vital reflections on our comparatively ‘secularised’ existences.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Additional Information: Due to copyright restrictions the full text of this thesis cannot be made available online. Access to the printed version is available.
Keywords: Ian Hamilton Finlay, Little Sparta, concrete poetry, topographical poetics, non-secular, modernism
Subjects: N Fine Arts > N Visual arts (General) For photography, see TR
P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General)
P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General) > PN0080 Criticism
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts & Humanities > School of Critical Studies > Scottish Literature
Supervisor's Name: Riach, Prof. Alan and McCue, Dr. Kirsteen
Date of Award: 2015
Depositing User: Dr Calum Rodger
Unique ID: glathesis:2015-6442
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 10 Jun 2015 08:50
Last Modified: 01 Oct 2018 07:58

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