The Fuse Held

This was the time in her life that she fell upon books as the only door out of her cell. They became half her world.
—Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient (7)

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In between the purity—the depth and quiet—of our natural world, and the chaos and horror of humankind’s cruelest deeds, there is a fuse. Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient balances on the pinnacle between what is de-fused and what ignites—exploding in one’s hands.

In the desert the most loved waters, like a lover’s name, are carried blue in your hands, enter your throat. One swallows absence (141).

Simply stated: it is a beautifully written book. Some of the lines are just devastatingly lovely. Many years ago I saw the film, which I liked, and I had the book somewhere in my mental-book-queue to read. But it wasn’t until my step-father mentioned he was reading it (and highly enjoying it) that I hurried over to the library. I swear, when the library has the book I want on the shelf I sometimes skip and hum a tune!— it is akin to the joy that only a best friend can bring. But I digress…although, not too much because the blood and sinew of The English Patient really is books.

‘This history of mine,’ Herodotus says, ‘has from the beginning sought  out the supplementary to the main argument.’ What you find in him are cul-de-sacs within the sweep of history—how people betray each other for the sake of nations, how people fall in love….How old did you say you were?
“Twenty.”
“I was much older when I fell in love” (119).

It is the books that sooth and alter with unthreatening loyalty. The story sways from post-WWII Italy, with a mysterious, gruesomely burnt, “English patient,” a nurse, an Indian bomb defuser, and a former thief/spy, to the pre-WWII deserts of Africa and a wrenching adulterous love affair.

After that month in Cairo she was muted, read constantly, kept to herself, as if something had occurred or she realized suddenly that wondrous thing about the human being, it can change (230).

On the heels of her honeymoon with her very blue-blooded husband, Clifton, Catherine falls devastatingly in love with Almásy. How does this happen? “How does this happen? To fall in love and be disassembled (158)? I am sure I don’t know, but I wonder too… “Who lays the crumbs of food that tempt you? Towards a person you never considered. A dream. Then later another series of dreams (150). When one’s own mind and heart are as fathomlessly mysterious as a desert perhaps this is what makes an unquenchable desire for knowledge to bloom, a seeking thirst that books, at least, seem to temporarily abate and rectify.

She was discovering herself. It was painful to watch, because Clifton could not see it, her self-education. She read everything about the desert. She could talk about Uweinat and the lost oasis, had even hunted down marginal articles (230). 

Of course there is much more to this story than the mystery of love. But perhaps everything is subordinate—so much of the action of life is dependant on love. Love is the logical casing in which everything else is shaped: treachery, pain, torture, slaughter, nationhood, racism, religion, emptiness, caring, tenderness, melancholy and mirth—it is all encased or exiled from a simple thing—the unity (in unity) of love. What does our love serve? If we are not defusing bombs, then the detonation is inevitable— horrifyingly so. But life is complex; passion is a powerful thing, and love—love is the essential thing. How do we know whom to trust, where our hearts are safe from devious trip wires?

When someone speaks he looks at a mouth, not eyes and their colors, which, it seems to him, will always alter depending on the light of a room, the minute of the day. Mouths reveal insecurity or smugness or any other point on the spectrum of character (219). 

The impersonal majesty of nature, (in the case of this story—the desert) lifts and joins our souls, yes, and books orient and expand our minds, ah but it is love, love, that unifies and mends our hearts, body and soul.

But all parts of the body must be ready for the other, all atoms must jump in one direction for desire to occur (259).

 

 

 

Communication Communicates

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Ed Ruscha’s 26 Gasoline Stations (1963)

In 1963 Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations was published, pioneering a new era in artist books. In the spirit of the counter-culture, this seemingly simple book altered the way that books were understood. The term “artist book” is a confusing and malleable term used differently by different people, but Ruscha’s work is understood as being at the incunabula of that discussion. Of course, Ruscha may not even accept the term for his own book, which he felt was mere documentation. What is Twentysix Gasoline Stations about? Ruscha might answer— it’s not about anything. It is exactly what it says it is: twenty-six gas stations. He is quoted in Mary Richard’s essay, “Artist Who Do Books,”  firmly stating: “Not that I had an important message about photographs, or gasoline, or anything like that—I merely wanted a cohesive thing” (Ruscha quoted in Richards, 30). One could argue that this is a slightly disingenuous stance given that he is the photographer, choosing the subject matter, angle, and method of delivery. In fact, by virtue of his choosing to present his photographs at all he is making a statement.

What that statement may be, is, of course, a more complicated matter. But there is at least one consistent element that comes through when reviewing Ruscha’s work as well as other works of that period, like Sol LeWitt’s Arc, circles & grids, or the whimsical Choosing Green Beans by John Baldessari. That is: the seemingly objective and removed nature of the content. Perhaps through a sort of wry humor Baldessari inserts himself a bit into his work, but these are all ostensibly impersonal works. They are“collections of facts” as Ruscha would say in Richard’s essay (31). They are all, also, works produced by men.

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Carolee Schneemann’s Vulva’s Morphia (1997)

Those works, therefore, juxtaposed with the feminist works, like those of Carolee Schneemann, Susan King or Jen Bervin, make for a very stark comparison. The female artists that were struggling to get their voices heard took to the artist book as a means to bypass the patriarchal authorities that kept them (and still keep them) out of the high-end art world. Books, they discovered, provided an accessible means for women to communicate their art. Lucy Lippard wrote in her essay “Escape Attempts” that the burgeoning genre of Conceptual art touch on the idea that “communication between people was subordinate to communication about communication” (Lipard, xvii). And that idea is clearly delivered in the works of Ruscha and DeWitt and many female artist as well, but when one considers the suppression of female artists throughout history, “communication about communication” takes on a deeper meaning. Feminist artists laid their minds, hearts and vaginas on the line in their art.

Vulva's Morphia

Vulva’s Morphia

Carolee Schneemann challenges notions of “polite society” and forces her viewers to consider just who it is that gets to say what women (and therefore people) can and can not talk about or display. In her book Vulva’s Morphia, Schneemann gives Vulva a voice, her radical stance is that Vulva has been denied the ability to communicate and the results, in Schneemann’s beautiful velvet-bound book, is at once sardonic and poignant. Vulva has a voice and through her voice,  Schneemann raises the sexual vitality of womanhood to fine art. The fact that, even in this day-and-age it feels incendiary, speaks volumes about how far women have yet to go to achieve equality in the art world—”‘vulva” is not even welcome as a word. It would seem we are not that far from the familiar, imposed “morality” that is pointed to at the end of the book: “Vulva goes to church and discovers she is obscene.…(quote St. Augustine)” (Schneemann). When Vulva says it— it is funny, but also, quite sad.

Jan Bervin's The Dickinson Composites (2010)

Jan Bervin’s The Dickinson Composites (2010)

Another popular and well-worn method of suppression is the relegating of “women’s work,” to some special, lesser genre. Some artist like Jen Bervin turn traditional female crafts (like needlework) onto the page in strikingly conceptual ways. Teasing out the secret world of Emily Dickinson’s unconventional notational systems in her poetry, Bevin creates in The Dickinson Composites a lovely minimalistic work in which one woman explores the secret inner life of another while expressing the deep continuity between them.

The Dickinson Composites

The Dickinson Composites

The intensity of the intimacy of Dickinson’s poems considered in Bervin’s gorgeous book is moving without being mawkish or sentimental. Here is a book that is just as much a statement of “communication about communication” as a Ruscha or DeWitt, and yet in Bervin’s work one can see that the impersonal tack is not the only approach to the concept. Just as Dickinson’s poetry is deeply personal, to the point of some inscrutability, Bervin highlights the mysteriously subjective communication that was, significantly, largely whitewashed out of Dickinson’s poems when they came to be published.

In the history of the art world there has always been a privileging of a male-centered perspective, reflected most obviously in the fact that males dominate the work that is shown and/or published. It is implicitly understood that the (preferable) rational, objective mind belongs to the domain of men while the emotional and subjective is relegated to women and children. Obviously that point of view is not only erroneous, but also damages and limits both sexes, yet it is clear that the stereotype still prevails. By comparing the above books, which are only loosely related, but share some conceptual, artistic and historical influences, one can see that the female and male perspective alike offer compelling and artistic insight and exploration into the experience—our experience, of being human. The artist that seeks publication is necessarily connected to communication and all the historical dynamics that influence the ability to be heard. Ruscha insist that he is not up to anything “deep” in his work. He is not, he states, being “arty.” But an anti “arty” stance in fact depends upon notions of “arty” to work against. Ruscha states that, “I think photography is dead as a fine art; its only place is in the commercial world, for technological or informational purposes” ( Ruscha quoted in Richards 30). But as the feminist artists of the 20th century show us, who disseminates the information, and for what purpose, matters.

 

*Vulva’s Morphia and The Dickinson Composites were published by Granary Books

**This essay was previously published in The Artist’s Book in the 20th Century Blog for Smith College in 2014.

 

 

The Path of Sympathy

“But you’re capable of dying for an idea; one can see that right away. Well, personally, I’ve seen enough of people who die for an idea. I don’t believe in heroism; I know it’s easy and I’ve learned it can be murderous. What interests me is living and dying for what one loves.” 
—Albert Camus, The Plague (162).

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Last week I was talking to a friend who lives as far away from me as is possible while still sharing the planet. We got to talking about Camus and he asked if I had read The Plague. I hadn’t. He said, “Do read it. It is why we must see eachother again.” The Plague is about exile and separation, it is about the resignation of despair, the banality of evil, and the capacity for endurance, but at its heart there is also: friendship.

“But, you know, I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with saints. Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is being a man” (255).

The story, told by a slowly revealed narrator, is related in a kind of detached expository manner. With the help of a detailed diary kept by a man named  Tarrou, the hellish months of the plague-stricken town Oran, are calmly related. The story is neither unnecessarily ghoulish nor gory. After all, everyone knows that plague is ghoulish and gory. The question Camus seems to want to ask is: is it any worse than the plague, the inner plague, that infects humanity?

One the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being  that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill (131).

The capacity to murder one another for whatever well-thought-out logic, law, or Supreme decree is the truly disturbing plague. All others are mere “natural” microbes doing their thing, running their course. At least with microbes the evidence of their malfeasance is indisputable. Or one likes to hope. Camus does spend the first third of the novel describing the inertia of the human mind when faced with unpleasant evidence. Our confirmation bias runs strongly in both directions towards good or bad—it’s an addiction to being right, I suppose…but I digress…

True, one could always refuse to face this disagreeable fact, shut one’s eyes to it, or thrust it out of mind, but there is a terrible cogency in the self-evident; ultimately it breaks down all defense (172).

Pockets of the virulent inner-form of plague pop up with unsurprising and depressing frequency. The history books and current news are bursting with examples. In Camus’ tale, the microbial plague stripes away much of what keeps societies occupied and largely sedated: the petty dogmas and concerns of daily life.  The friendship between Dr. Rieux and the stranger to town, Tarrou, reveals the profound beauty of friendship and simply joys, but also the un-heroic yet, human response of sympathy to others. The ties of love that bind us and make us terrifyingly vulnerable to a world in which microbes and other natural events wreck havoc, are are also what give us it’s deepest pleasures.

Perhaps I am being optimistic, but it seems to me we have made some small advancements as far as recognizing and dealing with “natural” menances. Very small perhaps. But in comparison to acknowledging what Camus was really talking about—the inner plague—there is no contest. And it’s wearying.

I know I have no place in the world of today; once I’d definitely refused to kill, I doomed myself to an exile that can never end. […] All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences (253-54).

Love serves nothing if it cannot serve each other. Friendships are unique in that they describe a love that is not based on birth or affiliation. That is the kind of love, expanded, which shows the way of sympathy to all of our fellow humans. Let’s follow it.

*Title from p. 254

** A Vintage Books Publication, translated from the French by Stuart Gilbert

 

Compassion’s Hero

“This world is no place of rest,” Thomas Dent Mütter taught his students. “It is no place of rest, I repeat, but for effort. Steady, continuous undeviating effort.” 
— Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, Dr. Mütter’s Marvels (Mütter quoted, 301).

I am grateful

I remain grateful

The story of Thomas Mütter’s life as told by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz in Dr. Mütter’s Marvels, is one of compassion, intelligence and restless improvement. 19th century surgery was not for the faint of heart: neither for surgeon, patient nor reader!  And yet, what I remain in awe of is the human capacity to endure. It should be said that I write that as someone who knows excruciating and sustained pain. After all I have experienced natural childbirth in which the average length of my labors was around 27 hours (with my third child seriously undercutting the average by coming in at an “easy” ten hours—perhaps easy only to my mind by sheer comparison, but still, I remain ever so grateful).

So, I do know—one does what one must do. Yet still, it astounds me— the surgeries that men, women, and children endured; often without so much as a sip of wine.

“However, his declaration, that a surgeon would be ‘without pity,‘ is most fallacious, ” he told them firmly, “for surely there is no other profession, in the performance of the duties of which such frequent and urgent appeals are made to our sympathy, and he must be more than man—or worse than brute—who can contemplate unmoved, the agony and torture to which his patients are so often subjected.
No, gentlemen, I would say to you,
cultivate your sympathy, but learn to control it…” (237)

Thomas Mütter was, unfortunately, the rare man that let his humanity rule his morals. At a time when so many doctors treated patients as mere case studies, he treated them as brothers and sisters, no matter who they were in society’s eyes, no matter how monstrous their appearance. Perhaps due to his own status as an outsider, orphaned at a young age, alone in the classist world of 17th century Philadelphia, and suffering from his own life-long infirmities, his true empathy and kindness to his fellow human beings, whom he strove to help both physically and psychically, was in fact remarkable.

It is rather the sweetness of his character which I love most to recall; the kindness of his heart, which seldom allowed, even towards his enemies, an act of retaliation to escape him, and I believe his colleagues, in musing over his name, will have their feelings mellowed by a similar sort of retrospection” (Joseph Pancoast quoted 294).

So Pancoast, a fellow professor and doctor at Jefferson Medical College in Pennsylvania,  eulogized Mütter. But who were these said “enemies?” Incredibly, they were fellow practitioners who refused to accept the evidence of commutative diseases, (fifty years before germ theory, yes, but come on! deduction, dear Watson—the evidence, as some clearly saw and reported was apparent!), or who saw pain as some sort of divine retribution and so eschewed anesthesia—after just reading  some of the horrific yet amazing life saving and life-altering surgeries (Mütter was at the fore-front of what today is called cosmetic surgery: repairing cleft palates, restoring movement and normalcy to severe burn victims, inventing the eponymous ‘Mütter flap’ which enabled successful skin transplants, etcetera) it is difficult, in hindsight, to understand the reluctance, inertia of the status quo and arrogant hubris which compelled these men to prefer to see their patients in incomprehensible pain. The ubiquitous ability to divorce oneself from simple empathy can boggle and depress the mind. I need hardly mention the fact that a doctor could witness a surgery in which a woman who had sustained hideous burn injuries and then CHOSE (in order to once again be able to move her head or close her mouth) to undergo  restorative surgery in which she was essentially flayed while awake, sitting up and held down by a few men with barely a moan! barely a moan! that some of these same doctors could have the blinding audacity to declare women too weak to endure the rigors of being doctors themselves. It not only defies but enrages logic.

And yet, thanks to the sweet sun of each new day, we seem, ever so slowly to progress. Between all my children (mostly boys), I having naturally spent my fair share of hours in emergency rooms and I deeply appreciate the advances medicine has made and continues to make. We, as a species, are so fortunate to have among us compassionate and gifted people who labor ceaselessly for the greater good and who appreciate that the patient is somebody’s child, somebody’s parent. But I don’t think I am being cynical to wonder if a man like Edward Robinson Squibb (student of Mütter) who invented a way to make ether safe and then gave that discovery away for free to the world, would have any place in the corporation Bristol Myers Squibb that follows him.

I can’t help feeling that it is a shame on us all that such men are so remarkable. One can only hope for a day when Mütter’s ethic of compassion and progress is the norm. As a bit of history of the art of medicinal sciences, Aptowicz tells a fascinating and moving tale while also making plain that a man such as Thomas Mütter needs to be remembered, admired, and emulated. In the meantime, we endure.

Throbbing Reality

But that man’s mind itself in all it does
Hath not a fixed necessity within,
Nor
is not, like a conquered thing, compelled
To bear and suffer,—
this state comes to man
From that slight swervement of the elements
In no fixed line of space, in no fixed time.
Lucretius, Of the Nature of Things, Book II, p. 57.

The pleasure of nature in a bite.

The pleasure of nature in a bite.

After reading The Swerve it seemed to me that I must read Lucretius. At my library I found many editions of De Rerum Natura, usually translated as On the Nature of Things. I found a compact edition entitled Of the Nature of Things translated by William Ellery Leonard. Comparing his work with another I was on the brink of choosing the other based on the first line, Leonard has it as follows: “Mother of Rome, delight of Gods and men,” but I preferred the romance and classicism of the other which read, “Mother of Aeneas, darling of Gods and men.” Yet,  when I began to peruse the forward, I knew I had to chose Leonard— his appeal to the “throbbing reality of the great living Roman, chief poet on the Tiber’s side” (xi) spoke to me.  And, he ended with an emotional appeal—only slightly tempered and made very amusing by being written in the third person: “He has loved Lucretius for many years, and the mighty spirit of the Roman has helped him to sustain many burdens in life” (xiv).

 Thus thou myself in themes like these alone
Can hunt from thought to thought, and keenly wind
Along even onward to the secret place
And drag out truth (16).

On the Nature of Things is basically an ancient science book written in verse. It is quite spectacular. Lucretius is thought to have lived between 99 and 50 B.C., but there is not much else known about him. Indeed, he came perilously close to complete obscurity, as The Swerve relates. Which would have been a shame as his words, particularly his acceptance of mortality, as well as his sensible observations of the natural world are beautifully rendered. He is emphatic that one need only think and live with a “breast all free” (187) to see that there are reasonable explanations for the nature of things. Admittedly,  sometimes he’s a bit testy:

… For dolts are ever prone
That to bewonder and adore which hides
Beneath distorted words, holding that true
Which sweetly tickles in their stupid ears (25)

Ouch.

Starting with his concept that all matter is composed of seeds (or atoms, or germs) undetectable to the eye, with a clear inclination or disinclination for similar seeds that can’t be mixed willy-nilly—after all human beings have a similarity and affinity for other human beings, we can’t mate with trees can we? No, of course not, there are limits.

From out the heart, aye, verily, proceeds
First from the spirit’s will, whence at the last
‘Tis given forth through joints and body entire (56).

He moves on to the motion of said atoms, the soul, the senses, love, the origin of the world and its inhabitants, the beginning of civilisation, meteorology, and then, concludes with the plague. In all fairness, the work was apparently unfinished so one can only hope he had been planning a more pleasant ending.  Nevertheless, on a whole, quite ambitious.

…but unto things are given
Their fixed limitations which do bound
Their sum on either side, ‘tmust be confessed
That matter, too, by finite tale of shapes
Does differ (64).

This is a fascinating point to pause on. Life is finite. There are limits, and yet:

The which now having taught, I will go on
To bind thereto a fact to this allied
And drawing from this its proof: those primal germs
Which have been fashioned all of one like shape
Are infinite in tale; for, since the forms
Themselves are finite in divergences,
Then those which are alike will have to be
Infinite…(64).

Infinity within the finite. It’s brilliant, really. I can’t stop coming back to this idea again and again: the possibility, the diversity—but all within the finite. It almost seems that it is the limits which make infinity possible. Similarly,  it is the certain knowledge of death (but don’t despair! nothing will matter because, well, you’ll be dead!) which makes life sweet. Lucretius writes with such passion about every subject that I am not revealing anything unexpected by saying, so too then—Love. His section on love and lust is startlingly erotic in its true description of the “violence of delight,” the lovely insatiability:

Nor can they sate their lust
By merely gazing on the bodies, nor
They cannot with their palms and fingers rub
Aught from each tender limb, the while they stray
Uncertain over all the body (177)

It’s not as if all his “facts” are correct, he has, for just one example, some funky notion about women being less likely to conceive when enjoying sex too much, (sometimes men come up with such odd ideas regarding women’s sexuality that all one can do is be thankful not to have been their lover). But, be that as it may, he was onto some very huge ideas, with enormous implications for the way in which one chooses to live. As an admirer of Epicurean  philosophy, to spare oneself unnecessary evils and ignorances doesn’t require much. Our bodies are made to experience this world in all its wondrous splendor, and as we happen to find ourselves here, why not?

Therefore we see that our corporal life
Needs little, altogether, and only such
As takes the pain away, and can besides
Strew underneath some number of delights (45).

 

I am free for reading

For Epicurus, human suffering is always finite: “if it is slight, he [Epicurus] says, you may despise it, if it is great it will not be long.” 
—Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve (101)

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Stephen Greenblatts’s The Swerve  beautifully illustrates a book’s ability to leap back into history. In one step the reader is taken back to 15th century Italy, into the life and letters of a talented scribe and secretary to the horrible Pope John XXIII. Poggio Bracciolini’s education and rise through the treachery that was the Catholic church at that time is fascinating. The slight indications he gives of rebelling against or resigning to such a corrupt and miserable time are both encouraging (phew! at least some people were alluding to the barbarism!) and deeply disturbing (oh damn, the horror of dogmatists and the rot of power-hungry institutions never ceases!). But Poggio, unlike so many, had a sanctuary: books.

In the north the powerful Visconti of Milan are raising an army; Florentine mercenaries are besieging Lucca; Alfonso in Naples is stirring up trouble, and the emperor Sigismond is applying intolerable pressure on the pope. “I have already decided what I shall do if things turn out as many people fear; namely, that I shall devote myself to Greek Literature…” (153).

I know the feeling…

Ah, the company and comfort of books, where the cosmic can commingle with the common. A book has such long reach—within our hearts and through time. They are a form of connective tissue that can touch us all.

With another step back, Greenblatt takes the reader to Lucretius, and a short hop back further to Epicurus. It will be Lucretius’ book that does the connecting. It is his De rerum natura, On the Nature of Things, that Poggio discovers and re-introduces into a world that has tried very hard to have nothing to do with the ideas, inspired by Epicurus, within. In fact it is a world that wants very little to do with ideas, period.

Even more than the theory that the world consisted only of atoms and void, the main problem was the core ethical idea: that the highest good is the pursuit of pleasure and the diminution of pain. What had to be undertaken was the difficult project of making what appeared simply sane and natural—the ordinary impulses of all sentient creatures—seem like the enemy of the truth (102).

While reading this book a sort of horror of realization washed over me. This fetish for misery and suffering, the glorifying of pain, or “cleansing power” of trials and tribulations which still permeate our culture is merely a controlling device, and a choice. For Epicurus, and his many followers, to choose pleasure in lieu was simply a more sensible choice. When Greenblatt describes the church’s suppression, through bone-chilling violence and a depraved gluttony for torture and punishment, of the “pagan” Epicurus, one can see how hard it would have been for a man of Poggio’s refined intelligence to ignore the logic. Be kind. Enjoy life. My god! What sort of a mind comes up that! —An evil mind— is the conclusion that the church comes up with. But that conclusion requires a divorce from thinking, thinking things over became tantamount to witchcraft as the story if Hypatia indicates.  Greenblatt tells the history of Hypatia to show the long struggle the church had in convincing people that suffering was where it’s at. She lived around 400 CE in Alexandria and had the misfortune of being smart. Still a liability in our world I’m sorry to say.

Rumors began to circulate that her absorption in astronomy, mathematics, and philosophy—so strange, after all, in a woman—was sinister: she must be a witch, practicing black magic (92).

What happens to her next is so disturbing I can’t bring myself to report and only wish I could remove it from my head.

Interwoven into this wonderful story is of course a small history of the writing and transcribing of books. It was a time when good handwriting could lead to a fairly secure existence, but it was also a time when ancient books were being discovered and dragged out of dusty monasteries where if by some miracle they hadn’t been purposely destroyed they had simply been forgotten after their defamation was complete. In my work digitizing medieval manuscripts for the Digital Scriptorium Project I have spent some time bent over very old manuscripts. The black face letterform is so difficult to read that I have often wondered if the books, mostly bibles after all, were really meant to be read (by which I mean understood and reasoned out). Perhaps, it was some purposeful obfuscation? Imagine my surprise to find myself in the company of Petrarch:

Petrarch complained that the writing then in use in most manuscripts often made it extremely difficult to decipher text, “as though it had been designed,” he noted, “for something other than reading” (115).

Why, Petrarch my friend! those are my thoughts exactly!

Greenblatt’s book is a wonderful exploration of the technical, practical, spiritual, and philosophical implications of knowledge. But it seems incredible to me that human history is riddled (still!) with people and societies that expend enormous energy in suppressing knowledge—suppressing the freedom to think. Lucretius referred to the swerve, “the swerve is the source of free will,” Greenblatt explains, “In the lives of all sentient creatures, human and animal alike, the random swerve of elementary particles is responsible for the existence of free will” (189). We are just here, in other words, by whatever random act of molecular organization, but still, here we are: thinking, acting, beings.

As frightening as it is to consider the horror of a religious tradition that actively worshipped suffering, and the inevitable conclusion that we are not yet very far from that mindset—and further still, that new crops of warped religious fundamentalists constantly threaten human dignity and intellectual freedom,  it is heartening to know that no matter how many steps back one travels in history there are always to be found a few that pause and say, “hang on a minute, why are we suppose to be miserable? After all, life can actually be pretty sweet, one doesn’t even need that much. And don’t worry about the what is beyond life—after all, you’ll be dead.” Lucretius, as Epicurus before him, was committed to the idea that this life, being all that we truly know, is worth enjoying, indeed it is meant to be enjoyed.

*Title from p. 153: “Your Poggio,” he wrote, “is content with very little and you shall see this for yourself; sometimes I am free for reading, free from all the care about public affairs which I leave to my superiors. I live free as much as I can.”

*Photo of one of the manuscripts I photographed for the Digital Scriptorium project, refreshingly not in gothic script, with charming doodles such as the above- Omnia Vincit Amor!

Guidebooks

This book is really meant to be interactive. It is meant to be touched and slowly revealed, but this is not achievable in digital form. I constructed the slip case of board and paper, and each book of paper, book cloth, vellum, and thread.