Tag Archives: marginalia

Violations of Light

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“…Now, here is a simple, ordinary English script of the purest sort: elegance can go no further, everything here is lovely, a jewel, a pearl; this is perfection; but here is a variation, again a French one, I borrowed it from a French traveling salesman: this is the same English script, but the black line is slightly blacker and thicker than in the English, and see—the proportion of light is violated; and notice also that the ovals are altered, they’re slightly rounder, and what’s more, flourishes are permitted, and a flourish is a most dangerous thing! A flourish calls for extraordinary taste; but if it succeeds, if the right proportion is found, a script like this is incomparable, you can even fall in love with it.” — The Idiot by Fydor Dostoevsky (trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky), p 34

When I read a book I always mark it up: turning up the bottom corners of pages that have a word, line, or passage I love and then sometimes putting a mark in pencil alongside the words so that I don’t have a what the hell did I find so interesting about this page?! moment when I go back to it. Some books I read have many such markings, but some get none. It doesn’t always mean I didn’t like the book if I don’t mark it up, only that there were particular concise arrangements of words that struck me hard as either funny, moving, philosophical, or all of the above that I will want to return to some day. My copy of The Idiot does not have many upturned pages and only one that is marked. That is the above passage.

As I go back over the book to think through my impression of it, I wonder at the general lack of upturned corners. As well, considering the rather somber message of the story, I also note the seeming randomness and levity of the one quote I marked. I know why I marked it, I take a particular interest in the topic…but, also, upon further reflection, I found I enjoyed stretching the metaphor out a bit. In a way, the quote is wonderful because it nearly says everything about the book at once—and, truly, who can resist a paean to scripts? Surely not me.

Reading The Idiot was often like watching a film at one and a half speed that went something like this—a group of people crowd into a room, much passionate talk ensues, the group all depart at once, stumbling out into the hall or street and then it happens all over again for more or less 600 pages. It’s all very amusing on that level. Crazy people all hot and bothered over all their crazy concerns. These personalities are the flourishes and the flourishing abounds. Unreserved, unrestrained, unadulterated flourishing, in their own hand. It can be a mess. I read in some analysis of the story (I can’t remember where now) that the plot was not in fact plotted—Dostoevsky let the story unwind by itself. It did feel that way.

But, like nearly everyone else in the novel, my heart was moved by the dear Prince. Lovely light of a man. He tries ever so hard to find the right proportion. In his way he tries to avoid flourishes, but people read them in anyway. The articulation of that very human condition, in which one thinks one is saying something in the plainest way possible but in which one is instead heard to be meaning something else is at the heart of Dostoevsky’s novel. We are all taken, most all of the time, to be thought of as manipulating our text, as it were. There is no tolerance for innocence. Bad motives are the only possible explanation. I have taken to sometimes prefacing a question by saying, “this is simply a question, I mean nothing other by it than to ask the actual question…” just to make sure the flourishes of someone else’s life doesn’t spill over and warp a simple point of clarification on my part.

This seems more prevalent today than ever, although Dostoevsky obviously exposes the lie of what something feels compared to what something is. Clearly if he is writing on the subject 100 years before my birth, then what I feel is not necessarily what is so. Perhaps we can say that it’s amplified today—what is social media if not a mega-soapbox of the professionally aggrieved and willfully offended? No question is innocent, everyone is a troll, and it goes without saying that everyone’s motives are evil.

The Idiot has no answer to this dilemma.

You acknowledge that society is savage and inhuman because it disgraces a seduced girl. But if you acknowledge that society is inhuman, it means you acknowledge that this girl has been hurt by this society. But if she’s hurt, why, then, do you yourselves bring her out in front of that same society in your newspapers and demand that it not hurt her? Mad! Vainglorious! p 285

It’s only the tragedy and hypocrisy of it all that can be expressed. We all bring our own flourishes when we endeavor to communicate with others, but they are dangerous things, and the meaning or intent can get lost when we imprint our own neurotic or damaged histories. Maybe, if we could agree that it is right to take care in how we talk to and treat others on a personal and societal level—and how we respond to others, that is to say, tastefully—without leaving a bad taste—we might begin to have something beautiful, something one could fall in love with.

 

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What Is It In Me?

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Shoe Shop, Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones (1911)

One of my favorite things about reading library books is the marginalia or annotations of previous readers. I love to consider the differences between what I might mark or underline and what a perfect stranger (albeit a similarly literarily-like-minded one) takes it upon themselves to mark. I found this written on the half title of Eudora Welty’s Golden Apples: 

If the author of the book were to ask, like the man in Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Mortmain” [sic?] ‘What is it in me that you like so much, And love so little?”,

It sent me on a quest to discover where that poignant line came from. The written title that was illegible, or just plain wrong, was no help. It took me a little bit of time but I found the the poem. It is called Avenel Gray.

Seneca sat one Sunday afternoon
With Avenel in her garden. There was peace
And langor in the air, but in his mind
There was not either—there was Avenel;
And where she was, and she was everywhere,
There was no peace for Seneca.

The poem is very long. It is the story of a man who comes to the realization that the woman that he loves will never make room in her heart for him.

What is it in me that you like so much,
And love so little? I am not so much a monkey
As many who have had their heart’s desire,
And have it still. My perishable angel,
Since neither you nor I may live forever
Like this, I’ll say the folly that has fooled us
Out of our lives was never mine but yours.

It’s a lonely and devastating poem. I became curious about the author. I had never heard of the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Edwin Arlington Robinson, (he hated his name apparently and went by E.A. Robinson. One can speculate that his disdain for his name stemmed from the fact that his parents didn’t name him until about six months after he was born [disappointed by his sex] and then finally left it up to a sort of contest between strangers in Arlington, Maine while on vacation the summer of his birth.). He was in love with a woman that went on to marry his brother. Her poor choice in marriage did not cool his ardor and after the brother (who seems to have been something of a wastrel) died she rejected his hand both times he offered it.

My wonder is today that I have been
So long in finding what there was to find,
Or rather in recognizing what I found
Long since and hid with incredulities
That years have worn away, leaving white bones
Before me in a desert.

Robinson had another relationship with the troubled artist Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones. She spent some years institutionalized and one of the unfortunate manifestations of her troubles was an inclination to destroy her own work. Looking at her beautifully energetic painting above, the loss is lamentable. It is unclear to me whether or not the love between Robinson and Sparhawk-Jones was one-sided (if so it would have been on her side) but I hope not. I always root for the love story, fighting against the folly that fools us out of our lives.

Life in the Margins

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My desk blotter with my random marginalia

Some people, when they begin a new job, buy an new outfit to start off on the right foot. Me? I bought a used book. I have started a job digitizing medieval manuscripts and had the very clever idea to read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose to get myself in the proper frame of mind.

“It matters a great deal, because here we are trying to understand what has happened among men who live among books, with books, from books, and so their words on books are also important” (112).

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So far in my job, no one has been murdered. Although I have enjoyed Eco’s non-fiction, I have to admit it is the very genre of the “murder mystery” that put me off reading The Name of the Rose in the first place much less seeing the film. I don’t like the feeling of terror. The Exorcist was my first and last horror movie and Inspector Montalbano is the only detective I will ever love (but, Salvo, rest assure, I do love you). Basically, I’m a chicken. I am therefore happy to report that three murders in, I am forging ahead: labyrinth; dark, smoky intoxicating halls; ghoulish imagery; and creepy monks aside, the joy of reading about parchments and rubicators as I handle the very sorts of books that are at the center of the mystery in The Name of the Rose is tremendous fun.

An ancient proverb says, three fingers hold the pen, but the whole body works. And aches (128).

True, the script I am photographing is mind bogglingly small. I may go blind just trying to focus my camera never mind contemplate how they wrote in such a miniscule hand – nevertheless, I feel a kinship of sorts to the scribes of these texts. I prepare them to be ‘scribed’ by the computer, but we have the same problems, ye old monk and I: making copies, trying to get the details right, uncomfortable chairs, lighting issues, all in an effort to share the knowledge contained within.

Terce: In which Adso, in the scriptorium, reflects on the history of his order and on the destiny of books (181).

I think the biggest loss in the act of transcribing these books to a digitalized format is that in binary code, there is no room for marginalia. One thousand years from now that will be the most frustrating loss for archivists. They will want to know that I cursed in three different languages when I mistakenly failed to adjust the focus on fifty images. Alas, they will never know. The loss to history is….incalculable.

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*The Name of the Rose translated from the Italian by William  Weaver