Book Porn, no.6

Books have their occupations just as people do.  Some, like local phone directories, serve only to keep the paper recycling industry in business.  Others imagine higher callings for themselves.

Description de l’Egypte (1994) and Alchemy & Mysticism: The Hermetic Museum (1997), Benedikt Taschen, Köln.  I might have included these in my paean to fat paperbacks, but these are fatties of a different sort.  Back in the middle ‘90s, Taschen was specially fond of publishing stout little art books that weigh like bricks in the hand and open only with some forcing.  They are impractical things, but as book-objects very desirable.

Behold the book as antiquarian, historian, naturalist, ethnographer and tour guide.  My son pries open Description de l’Egypte to reveal an image of the Sphinx.   In its scaled-down single-volume form, this book reproduces the only real triumph of Napoleon’s miserable Egyptian campaign: over 3000 illustrations of persons and landscapes, hieroglyphs and temples, fauna and flora, published by imperial command.  According to legend, over 400 copper-engravers worked twenty years on this book.

Behold the book as alchemist, analyst, curator, dream-interpreter and psychopompos.  My daughter holds open the doors of The Hermetic Museum to reveal an image of The Ladder.  The book is a Jungian fantasy, an encyclopedia of esoteric and alchemical symbology.  My patience for this sort of thing ran out about the time the book was published, but the pictures are wonderful.  The Masonic Jacob’s Ladder on the right is supposed to represent “the transformation of the raw stone (apprentice, Prima Materia) into the cubic stone (Lapis).”

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Book Porn, no.6

  1. You have outstanding hand models, sir.

    Alchemy&Mysticism is one of the best paperbacks I’ve ever seen. Used to lug it around and impress the ladies.

  2. Ian Wolcott

    I think they enjoyed helping out on this one. They often ask when Unca W’s coming to visit again.

  3. Those are some fine ones, Ian. (I also enjoyed your quip about Napolean.) I have no books the likes of these. Do you have any good historical atlases to add to this category in your web-blog? I find those things fascinating.

    On another head, I was reading T. Hardy’s “Poetical Matter” notebook, lately published, and ran across this meditation: “A suffering God: an afflicted God: a self-mortifying God: a self-chastizing God: a self-punishing God (i.e., causing defects & pains in a world which is a manifestation of himself).–1901. Feb.”

    It is presumptuous of me to ask, I know. But I’d love to see what that might draw out of you by way of marginalia (a series of yours of which you may count me quite a fan).

    I suppose, in any case, that Hardy has here found at least one way to explain the Boer War.

    Best, Mark

  4. Ian Wolcott

    An interesting quote from Hardy. The last three in the series strike me as quite different from the first two. Where the first two are in range of Christian orthodoxy (cf. Christian interpretations of Isaiah’s “suffering servant” passage, and the NT notion of divine kenosis), the last three make God a masochist, which might fit in with the flagellants, etc. but would be at odds with Xian dogma. Tie the masochistic thread together with the idea of the world as manifestation of God and it makes for an interesting -if gloomy- theodicy.

    Your thoughts?

    BTW – I’m going to be offline for a few days.

  5. Well, my thoughts first sent me to the dictionaries (theological & otherwise) to gloss “divine kenosis,” which, upon finding it out, I realized I should have learned somewhere along the way, but didn’t.

    Anyway, Hardy wrote a number of poems in which God speaks, or is spoken of, almost always in heterodox ways quite aslant from Xianity; which fact led Lascelles Abercrombie to this complaint, in his old book on Hardy, which doesn’t directly address the matter at hand (the notebook entry’s possible incoherence) but bears on it nonetheless:

    “It is scarcely possible to give lyrical form to abstruse metaphysical speculation, which is neither pure faith nor pure scepticism, without discovering that what is convenient for the art is inconvenient for the philosophy. The profoundly purposeless energy of existence ; its terrible limitations, compared with what, in our fantasy, it might have been; the unalterable pace of what Hardy excellently calls its ‘rote-restricted ways’ (suggesting thereby one of the most remarkable of modern scientific ideas that what we call the physical laws are strictly the habits of matter): all these may be very impressively put into lyrical form by the device of addressing such conceptions under the name of God. But even while aesthetic appreciation is acknowledging the result to be serious and moving, philosophy can hardly keep quiet: ‘If these things trouble you, why increase their trouble by calling them God? Surely even art must perceive that these disturbing conceptions are the work of human wit and sense, and that, if God be at all, it is a million to one He is altogether outside any reach of wits and senses which the mere close needs of evolving life have fashioned?’ Some such objection is unavoidably aroused by Hardy’s lyrical attribution to the Deity of the humanly perceived limits of existence; and art which can be so easily questioned, though by something exterior to art, is scarcely to be called perfect.”

    I happen to disagree w/ Abercrombie. I like Hardy’s free and easy way with God, & consider it a virtue, not a defect. But what of that?

    Hope you enjoyed your holiday offline, and that it was indeed a holiday.

    Regards,
    Mark

  6. Ian Wolcott

    It was, a brief holiday (snow trip with the kids) – thank you.

    Two half-formed thoughts:

    First, I agree that Lascelles Abercrombie (a name and a half, isn’t it?) is wrong to censure Hardy on this count. But I wonder if it isn’t affirmations of Xian orthodoxy that actually put Hardy on the better footing here. I’m thinking of the doctrine of the incarnation and the notion of God’s personal omnipresence throughout – and intimate concern for – creation. Assumptions and expectations like these ironically make it possible for Hardy, in the face of evil and suffering, to take the sort of offense and make the sort of retorts he does, where a less personal or less responsible god escapes unscathed.

    Second, it seems to me that we should be skeptical of any religion (or philosophy, etc.) that wants to sound more like science than poetry. Systematic metaphysics are tempting because we seem to sense, at times, a sort of order under the surface of things (and whether it’s an order we project onto things or really perceive in things makes no difference if we accept that we are equally a part of nature). But the scope of our certain knowledge of anything whatsoever can only be so severely restricted that, by rights, we all ought to be agnostics under our clothes. That’s just my opinion.

  7. Glad it was a snow trip. And welcome back to the blogosphere (another sort of “snow-trip” altogether: it never stops falling and forever accumulates).

    Apt words, yours. I begin to think you’ve been reading William James. Is he somewhere on your shelves? I have in mind his way of dealing with systematic metaphysics & rationalism in such essays as “The Sentiment of Rationality,” and also “Some Problems Metaphysically Considered” (one of my favorites).

    Cf. http://www.authorama.com/pragmatism-4.html

    Best,
    Mark

    • Ian Wolcott

      I’ve read his ‘Varieties of Religious Experience’ but nothing else, really. I’ll check out the essay you linked to. Thanks.

  8. Taschen had a strange history. And I liked their old format. It didn’t seem impractical to me.
    TOG

  9. Ian Wolcott

    No? It’s just that I hate to crease the spines of my books. The format seems to require it, if you want a good look at any particular picture.

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