What is the thing that lies behind the semblance of the thing?
Virginia Woolf poses that question in her 1931 novel The Waves. Here’s the passage surrounding the question:
‘An axe has split a tree to the core; the core is warm; sound quivers within the bark. “Ah!” cried a woman to her lover, leaning from her window in Venice. “Ah, ah!” she cried, and again she cries “Ah!” She has provided us with a cry. But only a cry. And what is a cry? Then the beetle-shaped men come with their violins; wait; count; nod; down come their bows. And there is ripple and laughter like the dance of olive trees and their myriad- tongued grey leaves when a seafarer, biting a twig between his lips where the many-backed steep hills come down, leaps on shore.
‘ “Like” and “like” and “like” — but what is the thing that lies beneath the semblance of the thing? Now that lightning has gashed the tree and the flowering branch has fallen and Percival, by his death, has made me this gift, let me see the thing. There is a square; there is an oblong. The players take the square and place it upon the oblong. They place it very accurately; they make a perfect dwelling-place. Very little is left outside. The structure is now visible; what is inchoate is here stated; we are not so various or so mean; we have made oblongs and stood them upon squares. This is our triumph; this is our consolation.
The sweetness of this content overflowing runs down the walls of my mind, and liberates understanding.
— a glimpse of Sembl thinking, with thanks to Derek Robinson.