Tag Archives: Bibliophilia

Marginalia, no.194

Suppose…that books are natural productions that perpetuate themselves in the same manner with animals and vegetables, by descent and propagation.

~ David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion

Readers would be made amateur naturalists, bookshelves specimen boxes, and libraries zoological gardens. Filmographers would brave malarial uplands and arctic wastes to document the mating habits of memoirs, while lab-coated researchers measure to a syllable what one novel owes another by DNA analysis. Those of us habituated to life amid swarms of half-feral volumes that devour our means and command every domestic surface would be the literary equivalent of crazy cat ladies, arrested on live television (to the cheers of an outraged public) for cruelty to animals and creating a public health risk.

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Marginalia, no.154

There are no chaste minds.  Minds copulate wherever they meet.

~ Eric Hoffer, Reflections on the Human Condition

I offer no thoughtful notes on the mechanics of contemporary fiction, no really dutiful explorations of any particular book or author.  I am a shallow reader, lazy, given more to a moment’s lust than a lifetime’s devotion.  The friction of minds is all that I crave.  This is only the record of my perpetual orgy, my innumerable debasements.

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Book Porn, no.9

Lives of Saints, a miscellany of hagiographical curiosities published by John J. Crawley and Co., New York (1954), with the imprimatur of Cardinal Spellman.  Considered as an object, it’s an especially appealing book, with patterned burgundy leatherette binding, a nice choice of typeface and color illustrations throughout.  In the image above we see Stefano di Giovanni Sassetta’s The Meeting of St Anthony and St Paul (~1440).

Athanasius’s Life of Anthony was written about the year 360,  not long after the death of its subject.  A Latin translation was made by Evagrius, and it became one of the most influential books of the next half-millennium.  In it, Anthony is depicted as the Christian ascetic prototype, and his lurid torments at the hands of demons have been profitably exploited by artists for centuries (e.g. Bosch, Grunewald, Van Leyden, Michelangelo, Tintoretto, Cezanne and Dali). The event depicted in Sassetta’s painting, however, derives not from Athanasius’s biography but from Jerome’s brief Life of Paul the Hermit, written a few years later.  Jerome’s book has as much to do with Anthony as with Paul, however, and thanks to Jerome’s digressions, Virgilian flourishes and love of trivia it’s even more entertaining.  In fact, I can’t resist sharing some of it here.

First, in order to draw the background of the Galerian persecutions through which Paul lived, Jerome describes the plight of several Christian martyrs, including a young man who survived terrible tortures only to be subjected, in the end, to a different kind of trial:

[He] was ordered to be taken off to a most delightful garden [and] made to lie down on a thick feather bed…  He was laid there tied down by soft garlands to prevent him escaping.  When everyone had gone away, a beautiful prostitute came up to him and began to stroke his neck with gentle caresses, and (what is improper even to relate) to touch his private parts with her hands: when his body was roused to lust as a result, this shameless conqueress lay down on top of him… He who had not yielded to tortures was being overcome by pleasure.  At last, by divine inspiration, he bit off his tongue and spat it out in her face as she kissed him.

It was extremities of this sort that the young Paul of Thebes presumably sought to avoid by removing himself deep into the desert where he would become, eventually, Paul the Hermit.  According to Jerome, he finally settled in a cave at the foot of a barren mountain which let onto several hidden chambers open to the sky.  Jerome adds the wonderful detail that in several of these rooms “were found rusty stamps and hammers, used to stamp coins.  According to Egyptian records, this place had been a secret factory for minting money at the time when Antony was having an affair with Cleopatra.”

A great deal of time passes and the world forgets about Paul in his home under the mountain.  Then Anthony, who is ninety years old now and has also been living for decades as an anchorite in the desert, begins to reflect on the trials he’s endured, and to forget his humility.  According to Jerome:

It occurred to Antony (as he himself used to relate) that there was no monk in the wilderness more perfect than himself.  But during the night when he was asleep it was revealed to him that there was someone else further into the desert interior who was far better than him and whom he ought to go and visit.

Through trackless wastes Anthony marches for several days, seeing no one (find him in the distant upper left of Sassetta’s painting).  Finally he’s surprised by a coarse-looking hippocentaur, half man and half horse.  Frightened, Anthony asks where to find the servant of God shown to him in his dream.  According to Jerome, “the creature gave some kind of barbaric grunt, grinding out the words through his bristling lips rather than pronouncing them” (see Sassetta’s upper right corner).  Despite Anthony’s fears, the centaur proves harmless and points him in the right direction before charging off across the sand.

Anthony meets an even more frightening creature next, a satyr.  This encounter didn’t make it into Sassetta’s picture, but with its horns and cloven hooves, the satyr looks positively devilish to Anthony.  It turns out, however, to be just as friendly, and much more civilized and eloquent .  It speaks perfect Latin (or Greek, or Coptic) and announces itself the elected representative of its tribe, sent to beg Anthony’s prayers on their behalf and to deliver him a handful of dates to strengthen him on his journey.  Jerome can’t help but digress:

In case anyone has scruples about believing this, it was proved to be true by what happened when Constantius was emperor, witnessed by the whole world.  For a man of this kind was brought to Alexandria alive, providing the people with a marvelous spectacle.  Later, when it was a lifeless corpse, salt was sprinkled on it to prevent the summer heat causing it to putrefy, and it was carried to Antioch for the emperor to see it.

Several days later, nearly dead of sun and thirst, Anthony follows a she-wolf into a cave in the side of a mountain.  Stumbling through dark passageways he sees a light ahead: it’s ancient Paul the Hermit (113 years old now, says Jerome) standing in a doorway and holding a lamp.  The she-wolf he lets in but Paul shuts the door on Anthony, who in desperation collapses outside and threatens to die on the spot if Paul won’t open it.  Why should he let in a wild beast and keep out a fellow man? he asks.  Before opening the door and embracing Anthony (as seen in Sassetta’s foreground), Paul answers with a joke:

In response the hero spoke a few words thus: ‘No one makes a request like this as a threat; no one attempts treachery with tears.  Are you surprised if I do not welcome you if you come here with the intention of dying?’

According to a footnote, the phrase preceding Paul’s words (“In response the hero spoke a few words thus”) is a direct quote from Book VI, line 672 (in Latin) of the Aeneid.  After consulting it, I see that what Jerome has done here is to put Paul in the place of Musaeus, the poet-prophet-priest of ancient Attica, and disciple of Orpheus.  Paul is to Christ, then, as Musaeus was to Orpheus, and he passes on to those who follow him (Anthony) the poetic-prophetic-priestly way of life contained in anchoritic asceticism.  That seems to be Jerome’s message, and I can’t help but wonder if he isn’t trying to steal some of Athanasius’s authorial thunder (and fame) by suggesting that Athanasius’s hero, Anthony, only derives the perfection of his holiness through transmission from Jerome’s own hero, Paul the Hermit.

Now, in closing, and since I’m rambling already, I want to share one more thing, a note on centaurs from the appendix to T.H. White’s Book of Beasts:

When the dweller by the Nile saw the first Bedouin on horseback, or when Pizarro on his steed dawned dreadfully on the Mexicans in the New World, the legend of the centaur came into being.  Of cavalry, we still use the word “horsemen”: and what is a horse-man but a centaur?

Reading this, I thought at first that White had got his Aztecs and Incas mixed up, or else his Pizzaros and Corteses.  I find, however, that Cortes’s full name was, in fact, Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro, so perhaps it was intentional.  At any rate, I do like “dawned dreadfully,” and the explanation for the origin of centaurs sounds plausible.  It doesn’t explain satyrs, of course, but if the ancient world regularly treated them the way Jerome says the Alexandrians did, it’s no wonder they avoid us nowadays.

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Book Porn, no.8

Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson; William Heinemann, London (1978).

Penguin these days is publishing some very attractive collector’s editions of famous novels.  I was recently in one of the local corporate bookstores and took a copy of Pride and Prejudice from the shelf to admire the cover art.  As lovely as it looked from the outside, however, the quality of the typeface – digitally perfect, utterly regular – was a turn off.

If we’re to fall fatally in love (with a book, with a person), some irregularity of features is needed.  “There is no excellent beauty,” Francis Bacon wrote, “that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.”  Consider Zuleika (and Zuleika):

Perhaps it’s hard to tell by the photographs here.  You’ll have to trust that I was instantly smitten with this book.  The flimsy, fading dust jacket and loose binding; the high quality of the paper combined with the smudged, uneven application of ink; the inspired choice of typeface, with the upturned ‘e’ that recalls Zuleika’s own “shapely tilt of the nose” –  it all adds up to something irresistible.

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Book Porn, no.7

In a 1945 review of The Lear Omnibus, George Orwell said of Edward Lear’s nonsense rhymes: “They express a kind of amiable lunacy, a natural sympathy with whatever is weak and absurd.”  He thought Lear at his best when not wholly arbitrary, especially in the longer poems like The Owl and the Pussycat and The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.  Another that Orwell might have mentioned is The New Vestments, which is wonderful for lines like this:

He had walked a short way, when he heard a great noise,
Of all sorts of Beasticles, Birdlings, and Boys

When it comes to comical children’s verse, I agree with Orwell that there’s such a thing as too much nonsense.  A little nonsense combined with some wordplay, however, makes for an awful lot of fun.  Richard Wilbur’s collected opposites and differences I like very much.  But even more beloved in our house (and one of our best used bookshop finds in years, since collectors will pay over $100 for a good copy) is Alpha Beta Chowder by Jeanne Steig, wife of William Steig, who illustrated it.  It’s an alphabet book with plenty of lunacy and absurdity, but it’s less sympathetic than Lear and (like so many of the Steigs’ books) tinged with menace.  Two samples:

I’ll type this one out since it’s hard to read in the image above (I think you can make out the other one below):

Bellicose Brigand vs. Belligerent Bear

A bear and a brigand were bickering bitterly
Under the shade of a baobab tree.
‘The best thing by far,’ bawled the brigand, ‘is baklava.’
‘Bosh,’ boomed the bear. ‘It can’t possibly be.’

‘Why, there’s bric-a-brac, ipecac, blubber, and broccoli,
Bamboo, banana oil, beetles, and brine.’
‘You bandy-legged brute,’ brayed the brigand, ‘you blatherskite!
Baklava beats them all any old time.’

Oh, what a brouhaha: ‘Baklava!’ ‘Balderdash!’
‘Bah,’ barked the bear.  ‘We shall never agree.’
‘Let us pause,’ breathed the brigand, ‘and banish this blabber with
Hot buttered bat bread and barnacle tea.’

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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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Book Porn, no.5


Masterpieces of Etching, selected by Laurence Binyon; Gowans & Gray Ltd., London – Glasgow (1914).  I’ve lauded the large, but the smallness of small books is praiseworthy too.  While not the littlest volume in our library, this one is a near-miniature.  Why anyone would produce an art book on such a scale is a good question.  The images are only a few inches tall. Still, there are some lovely pictures.

Take, for example, the etching on the right by Wenceslaus Hollar, a Bohemian artist and illustrator who lived in London before and after the English Civil War.  It reads: “The Winter habit of an English gentlewoman.”  The oversized muff consuming her left arm and the mask over her eyes I find strange and strangely appealing.  I imagine Samuel Pepys stepping over beggars in the lane to make her acquaintance.  Hollar was so poor at the end that he supposedly had to plead with creditors not to seize his deathbed before he was finished with it.

Here are two portraits by Anthony Van Dyck, after whom the famous style of goatee is named.  “Van Noort” is on the left, and that’s “Vorsterman” leering at him from the right.  All the men in Van Dyck’s portraits wear Van Dykes, which, if it was really so common, makes you wonder why the style was named after him alone.  But maybe it wasn’t popular at all and Van Dyck only added it to his portraits the way a ten-year-old draws moustaches on the faces of people in magazine advertisements.

Here is a man in need of no introduction: Charles Mingus!  …Thanks to his generous narcissism, Rembrandt left us with an awful lot of self-portraits.  He looks something between Socrates and Falstaff, I think (plus a little Mingus).  But if I had a mug like his and could paint like he did, posterity might find itself with a surplus of my self-portraits too.

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