Ok, a morbid start. Still, I thought I’d recall my post from a few days ago when I speculated on the idea that books become art objects as their cultural life decays. Of course, I forgot that the romantics had already covered the ground where death begets beauty—which is not to say it’s false ground or can’t be re-covered in a new key. I was reminded of the romantics by Eric Wilson’s current essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “In Praise of Melancholy.”
One would think that Keats’s life would have fostered bitterness in him, but he remained generous in the face of his difficulties. He didn’t flee to the usual 19th-century escapes: Christianity or opium, drink or dreaming. Though he unsurprisingly underwent pangs of serious melancholia (who wouldn’t, faced with his disasters?), he nonetheless never fell into self-pity or self-indulgent sorrow. In fact, he consistently transformed his gloom, grown primarily from his experiences with death, into a vital source of beauty. Things are gorgeous, he often claimed, because they die. The porcelain rose is not as pretty as the one that decays. Melancholia over time’s passing is the proper stance for beholding beauty.
I thought I might blog more extensively on Wilson’s essay, but it ended up being less interesting than I had hoped. I’m wondering why, for an English prof, he seems so given to the vague and gauzy generalization over the vivid detail or anecdote. Still, credit for reminding me of those romantics. And my title of course is from the ubiquitous Wallace Stevens and what may be the most singularly beautiful poem in the American idiom, “Sunday Morning.”
Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfilment to our dreams
And our desires. Although she strews the leaves
Of sure obliteration on our paths—
The path sick sorrow took, the many paths
Where triumph rang its brassy phrase, or love
Whispered a little out of tenderness—
She makes the willow shiver in the sun
For maidens who were wont to sit and gaze
Upon the grass, relinquished to their feet.
She causes boys to bring sweet-smelling pears
And plums in ponderous piles. The maidens taste
And stray impassioned in the littering leaves.
In the words of the equally ubiquitous Stanley Fish, “Wow. Isn’t that just Great.”
Anyway, I launched into this not to talk about morbidity or about Stanley Fish but to return just briefly to my fascination with books as objet d’art. (I confess I’m not even entirely sure what this means in the Wittgensteinian sense that meaning is in the use. When do you use it? surely somehow differently than “art object” or people wouldn’t say it in French. Or maybe they’re just being pretentious.)
Courtesy of Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading, I again found some absolutely fabulous images of books as works of art at Signonsandiego. The artist, Aaron T. Stephan, has a new show at Quint Gallery entitled “Building Houses/Hiding Under Rocks.” As the website puts it, “he’s converted some 20,000 discarded books into … an artist’s Lincoln Logs.”.
One of my favorites:
Stephan’s website has more of this great stuff. I especially like the wrench made from pages of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgement.
Courtesy of Scott McLemee’s column at Inside Higher Ed about the best academic blogs on the web, I came across Rachel Leow’s site Idlethink, though I think she also calls it A Historian’s craft . Rachel regularly posts her photos of books in a running series she calls BookPorn. These are found objects, I guess—I’m no art historian. A beauty she’s discovered in the everyday display of books rather than in the self-conscious manipulations of the book’s physicality. Still, they fall in with my general mulling over what strikes me as a relatively new interest in the book as plastic art.
One of my favorites from Rachel’s collection:
My good friend Julia Kasdorf has a book entitled , The Body and the Book reflecting on women’s roles as embodied readers and writers, among other kinds of embodiment. Rachel’s pieces and some of the others I’ve pointed to over the past couple of weeks make me think we need a book entitled “The Body of the Book.”
Not that I will write it. I can barely make my way around an essay.
(Sidenote: Rachel also had some helpful hints for blog protocols in using her work. So thanks, Rachel. As I say, I can barely make my way around an essay. So far, blogging is pretty much glorified typewriting with nifty pictures as a bonus in case people get bored. Or in case I do.)
Still, I think there is something very poignant about Rachel’s photos. Seeing these photos makes the heart ache. Or at least a booklovers heart ache. Ok, so I’m weird; they make my heart ache. And I think it is somehow tied to the fact that Rachel’s work and other work like it call attention to the materiality, and thus the fragility, of books.
For us, books have been ideologically tied to permanence. Like the old woman in Stevens’s “Sunday Morning” who can’t stand the flowing by of time, for us books have bespoken our longings for and reaching after an unchanging permanence. Turning books themselves in to art suggest that books, too—and the texts and human knowledge they contain???—are more akin to the beauty sown by death, strewn leaves “of sure oblivion.” All the more so because digital culture is proud of its ephemeral impermanence. Flowing as a position of no position.
There’s a tricky dynamic in Stevens’s world of beauty. It’s not that ephemera is beautiful in and of itself. Indeed, change and movement are only beautiful in the hoped for permanence they suggest and make impossible. Beauty is the shape of our desire, aroused only in the awareness of its fragility and passing.
Perhaps this is why the sight of old books—or any books, rightly rendered–makes me ache. They are the sign of all things.