Tag Archives: l’encyclopedie

Companions in Distress

“What shall I do?” I said. “It seems a pity to commit suicide when I have lived for ninety-two years and really haven’t understood anything.”
—Leonora Carrington, The Hearing Trumpet (17)

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Described as a Surrealist novel, the 1974 book, The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington is nothing if not dreamlike. Where the novel begins bears zero relation from where it ends and the matter-of-fact tone with which Carrington relates the hairpin turns and oddness is exactly like a dream in which things just are and you don’t necessarily question how you know—don’t ask questions! the facts are whatever they appear to be.

Then a terrible thing happened to me. I started to laugh and could not stop. Tears poured down my face and I covered my mouth with my hand, hoping they would think I had a secret sorrow and was weeping and not laughing (45).

The most wonderful thing about the book is the innocently curmudgeon of a protagonist, Marian Leatherby. She is very funny and her friend Carmella is the type of friend we all wish we had:

“I will give you a solution in a few moments,” said Carmella, who was rummaging in a large covered basket that she had brought. “In the meantime I had better give you the chocolate biscuits and the port, before anybody comes” (141).

A woman with priorities! And the one who gives the near-deaf Marian a hearing trumpet which causes her to learn that her odious family, whom she did not in anyway miss hearing, are plotting to send her to a “retirement” home which is where the real adventure begins.

The novel is closer, in my opinion, to a sort of a magical realism in that Carrington does not try ones patience with pseudo-psychological-surrealist imagery. Rather than a deep seeded anxiety, the book has a sort of joyful innocence. Marian is very trusting, and for a fellow-trusting fool like myself, it is nice to root for her.

I leapt right into the boiling soup and stiffened in a moment of intense agony with my companions in distress, one carrot and two onions (176).

*image from L’Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers

 

 

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The Heart’s Watermarks

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I had the pleasure of attending a lecture given by Ken Botnick on his recently published artist book, Diderot Project. While waiting for my final exam of the semester to be released I calmed my nerves by spending a leisurely morning in Mortimer Rare Book Room extending the pleasure by reading this sumptuous, intelligent, and marvelously reverential work.

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I decided, while photographing some of the pages, that I would leave my own hand in the image. First of all—it made it a hell of a lot easier to take the image, but also, reading this book is such a richly tactile experience that my own hand began to take on all of the most wonderful aspects of the book. Not least of all–the first section—which is titled: “To Observe Without Confusion Vol. 1 Memory: The Hand.” My hand turning and touching each page created an echo of meaning. As Botnick relates, to touch something is a complex act: “grasping cannot be reduced to its visomoter aspects” (Marc Jeannerod quoted). And then, the spectacle of dried paint under my thumbnail (the stubborn vestiges of my own printmaking adventures) created a connection between myself, the artist Botnick, and les métiers (the trades) which Diderot so famously championed in his encyclopedia. And finally— I work the book. It is my tool. By my hand the deliciously rich and varied papers are discovered, the ideas absorbed, the beauty felt. The object is directly infused into my senses, of which touch, as Diderot believed, is the most essential.

Hand knowledge and symbolic knowledge constitute equally powerful but different and not equally appreciated ways of organizing worldly phenomena” (Jeanne Bamberger quoted).

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Botnick pieces together a variety of text by various authors, including himself, as a way into the project of representing, through a work, through an object, the vibrating pulse of Diderot’s spectacular l’Encyclopedie. Botnick lets the affecting qualities of what it means and how it feels to become deeply engrossed— intellectually, aesthetically, and emotionally— radiate out through his own book. In the second part, “I Insist on the Freedom Vol. 2 Reason: the Object”  he includes the poem, “Delights of the door” by Francis Ponge, arrestingly hinged on the gutter of the book. There is something so sweetly lovely about it…I love to turn a page and feel a smile rise upon my mouth.

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Some of the most extraordinary pages are the most difficult to photograph. Botnick designed several watermarks and had Paul Wang of Dieu Donné Paper produce. I have a weakness (thanks, especially, to Henry Miller) for watermarks. In the third image posted here the watermark of a compass can just be made out, these pages call to the reader’s hand with such intensity it is impossible not to lift the page and find the image increased by the backing of one’s own darker skin behind it. The paper is breathtaking throughout the book, but these pages are so lovely…Botnick has a gift for finding the sublime in the subtle.

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The person who perceives is not spread out before herself as a consciousness must be, she has historical density, she takes up a perceptual tradition and is faced with a present…(Maurice Merleau-Ponty quoted).

The above page, found in the final part, “Through Sensation We are Led to Abstraction Vol. 3 Imagination: The Senses” just about made me fall to my knees…I was trying to drown out the office chit-chat that was being conducted behind me so I put my earbuds in and played my playlist I call “Eclectic” —because it is. As I turned the page, the music went from Sue Jorge’s “Rock N’ Roll Suicide” to Mendelssohn’s Elijah op. 70 “he that shall endure.”  Something in those opening chords combined with the image in front of me just about slayed me.  Our personal-historical density informs and layers every experience we have. This is what I love about a book such as Botnick’s: what he brings, what Diderot left, the watermarks of my own heart—all these things are lived in the object.

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*Project Diderot, the work of Ken Botnick, editor, author, designer, printer, and publisher (Emdash 2015). Bound by Daniel Kelm (Wide Awake Garage).

Parlez, bijoux!

There is nothing like being a human. As ridiculous as a work may be, if it is praised it will succeed.
—Denis Diderot, trans. Sophie Hawkes, Les Bijoux indiscrets/The Indiscreet Jewels, (61)

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As my interest (okay, fine, obsession) with Diderot continues I took a slight detour into his novels (he is famed for his l’Enclopedie but perhaps not as well known for his literary works). Perhaps detour is too strong a word, the fact that each of his three novels are completely different and experimental in their own way fits perfectly into the kind of discursive and avid (not too strong a word in his case, I believe) intellect.

Allow the voice of your jewel to awaken the voice of your conscience, and do not blush at confessing the crimes you had no shame to commit (61).

The premise of Les Bijoux indiscrets is hilariously scandalous, I’m amazed, frankly, that Dali or Almodóvar never made a film of it. How can one resist a story of a sultan who obtains a magical ring which, once turned toward its female victim, causes her “jewel” to speak. Don’t think that just because this book came out in 1748 women’s vaginas didn’t have a lot to bitch about, actually, I suppose they had more…but this is not a book whose purpose is sympathy for the desires of the various jewels. It is really a provocative philosophical romp undressing the sexual hypocrisies of society.

Diderot was of course accused of indecency and while he was in the middle of negotiating the terms of his editorial-ship in regard to his monumental and incredible l’Encyclopdie, he was promptly thrown into jail for many months. That’s the thing about hypocrites—no sense of humor. Ah well.

Diderot uses this genre, (some people consider it a roman à clef, as some of the characters seem pointed towards real people—and court life in general) in an interesting way. Quick digression—I should mention that I also read his book, The Nun (La Religieuse) and, although a very different genre, it seems to me that he uses the literary form in both cases to explore philosophical ideas and political critiques. Both books suffer from this inverted stance. In literature, the story must come first, and whatever philosophy flows from the tale should not try to lead. It would be like a tango with two leads—an exquisite balance is lost. In The Nun, written as if it were a sort of Samuel Richardson novel in the vein of Clarrisa (Diderot wrote an essay in praise of Richardson that is so effusive in its praise that it is only its sincerity that keeps it from being on the wrong side of the ridiculous— but gosh I love the man’s committed passion!). I digress. The protagonist, Suzanne, is a woman forced into the cloistered life petitioning (the novel is, like Clarissa, epistolary, a long letter written to a man she hopes will help her out of her miserable condition) to be let free. For Diderot’s purposes it is important that Suzanne have no ulterior motive other than the simple reasonable truth that she has no feeling or interest for the vocation. She simply has no calling for it, why should she not have the freedom, the free will, to say, no thank you?  And the tortures and indignities she suffers with perfect patience and understanding! And yet, this purity and simplicity makes Suzanne a pretty flat character, and worse, she really loses credibility when, in an extended series of scenes (greatly detailed) she remains oblivious to the importunate sexual advances that are inherent in the Mother Superior’s fondling of Suzanne’s breasts (and other sweet spots)…. Really Suzanne? I know Diderot wanted to make her “an innocent” but I don’t care who you are, if your breasts are being fondled you are going to feel something, and if you are remotely intelligent you are certainly going to suspect something. Geesh.

But back to the jewels.

“Many are those in whom the soul visits the head as if it were a country house, where the stay is brief. These are the dandies, flirts, musicians, poets, novelists, courtiers, and all those whom we call pretty women. Listen to these people argue, and you will immediately recognize vagabond souls that are influenced by the different climes they inhabit” (126).

While the premise of this novel is fun, I don’t think Diderot has enough fun with it, but that may be because that is not really what he wants to talk about, and he may simply lack any deep insight into the complexity of what a woman’s vagina may have to report on from her perspective…the novel seems focused on the jewels’ fidelity or lack thereof (more the man’s perspective, I’d say) but what is lovely in the novel is the relationship between the sultan Mangogul and his beloved Mirzoza. Their spirited and philosophically complex discussions are the true heart of this novel. I couldn’t help thinking that Mirzoza stood for Sophie Volland who was Diderot’s mistress—her name was not Sophie, but because the name harkens the Greek word for wisdom that is what he called her throughout their passionate (intellectual and sexual) relationship as documented in his copious letters to her (only his are known to be extant).

“What! [affection in a jewel] devoid of meaning?” Cried Mirzoza. “So, is there no middle ground, and must a woman necessarily be a prude, a gallant, a coquette, a voluptuary, or a libertine?”
“My soul’s delight,” said the sultan, “I am ready to admit the inexactitude of my list, and I would add the affectionate woman to the preceding characters, but only on the condition that you give me a definition thereof that does not fall under one of my categories.” (100)

Where does the soul reside? Are animals sentient? Are people fundamentally good or bad? These are some of the conversations dispersed throughout the tale between these two lovers whose respect and tenderness for each other is a lovely thing to spend some time with.

*monoprint—”Motherhood” by J. Ryan 2015