Believing in What Cannot Be Believed

Image: from 'Elecktroschutz 132,' an album on Flickr by Bre Pettis

[Image: one of 30 Ways to Shock Yourself, a Flickr album by Bre Pettis (used here under a Creative Commons license). The images in this album apparently come from an old (1931) German book, Elecktroschutz in 132 Bildern; this was an illustrated guide to the hazards of electricity in everyday life. The illustrations all feature these curvy red lines and arrows, indicating the path the electricity takes and the dangerous points of contact which make the path possible. The caption on this one — one of the more fanciful images — might be, “Do not milk a cow with its tail wrapped around a light pole, especially if you may end up sitting in the milk you spill.” This does seem like sound advice.]

From whiskey river:

Credo

What good is poetry
if it doesn’t stand up
against the lies of government,
if it doesn’t rescue us
from the liars that mislead us?
What good is it
if it doesn’t speak out, denounce what’s going on?
It’s nothing
but harmless wordplay
to titillate and distract—
the government knows it,
and can always get rid of us if we step out of line.

That I believed in poetry,
even when I betrayed it,
that I came back to its central meaning
—to save the world—
this and only this
has been my salvation.

after C. Milosz

(Edward Field [source])

and:

Folk-lore means that the soul is sane, but that the universe is wild and full of marvels. Realism means that the world is dull and full of routine, but that the soul is sick and screaming. The problem of the fairy tale is—what will a healthy man do with a fantastic world? The problem of the modern novel is—what will a madman do with a dull world? In the fairy tales the cosmos goes mad; but the hero does not go mad. In the modern novels the hero is mad before the book begins, and suffers from the harsh steadiness and cruel sanity of the cosmos.

(G. K. Chesterton [source])

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Book Review: Mort(e), by Robert Repino

Cover: 'Mort(e),' by Robert RepinoStriking cover, wot? About which I’ll have more to say later, but for now you can already tell a few things about the book even if you haven’t read about it elsewhere:

  • You might wonder about the color, but clearly a cat — or at least catness in general — figures prominently herein.
  • The fonts are strikingly artificial. (Cutouts? Stencils?)
  • And although any old cover includes the book’s title, this cover practically fetishizes the title’s… well, the title’s novelty, its weirdness. It doesn’t just include but highlights the internal parentheses: it makes you notice them.

So let’s concede those details right up front (er, so to speak):

Yes, Mort(e) features a cat — not incidentally, but as its protagonist. The cat has chosen the name “Mort(e)” for himself, parentheses and all (right down to the human associations of morte-with-an-e, and mort-without-an-e). Which must imply that while the cat may be an animal, he’s probably not a natural animal. He is, in fact, something of a made creature…

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The Gravity of the Unknown

'Remarkable things, passing,' by user PhotoGraham on Flickr

[Image: “Remarkable things, passing,” by user PhotoGraham on Flickr.com. (Used under a Creative Commons license.) See the note at the foot of this post for more information.]

From whiskey river:

Think of how little has been salvaged from the compost of time, of the hundreds of billions of dreams dreamt since the language to describe them emerged, how few names, how few wishes, how few languages even, how we don’t know what tongues the people who erected the standing stones of Britain and Ireland spoke or what the stones meant, don’t know much of the language of the Gabrielanos of Los Angeles or the Miwoks of Marin, don’t know how or why they drew the giant pictures on the desert floor in Nazca, Peru, don’t know much even about Shakespeare or Li Po. It is as though we make the exception the rule, believe that we should have rather than that we will generally lose. We should be able to find our way back again by the objects we dropped, like Hansel and Gretel in the forest, the objects reeling us back in time, undoing each loss, a road back from lost eyeglasses to lost toys and baby teeth. Instead, most of the objects form the secret constellations of our irrecoverable past, returning only in dreams where nothing but the dreamer is lost. They must still exist somewhere: pocket knives and plastic horses don’t exactly compost, but who knows where they go in the great drifts of objects sifting through our world?

(Rebecca Solnit [source])

and:

Abraham Joshua Heschel, a very interesting rabbi and mystic, said he didn’t pray for faith; he prayed for wonder.

That is also my prayer. Wonder is the heaviest element on the periodic table; a tiny fleck of it stops time. My periodic table of the heart also has many other elements, still unidentified by science. One of them is unattainium. That’s the one that continues to drive us forward whether or not we expect to succeed.

(Diane Ackerman [source])

and:

Balance

I watched the arctic landscape from above
and thought of nothing, lovely nothing.
I observed white canopies of clouds, vast
expanses where no wolf tracks could be found.

I thought about you and about the emptiness
that can promise one thing only: plenitude —
and that a certain sort of snowy wasteland
bursts from a surfeit of happiness.

As we drew closer to our landing,
the vulnerable earth emerged among the clouds,
comic gardens forgotten by their owners,
pale grass plagued by winter and the wind.

I put my book down and for an instant felt
a perfect balance between waking and dreams.
But when the plane touched concrete, then
assiduously circled the airport’s labyrinth,

I once again knew nothing. The darkness
of daily wanderings resumed, the day’s sweet darkness,
the darkness of the voice that counts and measures,
remembers and forgets.

(Adam Zagajewski [source])

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“After the Ecstasy, the Laundry”

[Video: “Behind the scenes” look at the making of a pop-up “art book,” Everyday Wonders, which was created to advertise the features of a new Samsung smartphone. (The advertisement itself is here.)]

From whiskey river:

Pastoral

There are so many messages I can’t interpret.
The hundred maples at the edge of my street shout orange, orange,
orange, in silent voices. And may say more if I could decipher.

How I want to understand the many calls of the birds migrating through
on their long journey. And what is the message of the shaggy
wave-curled sea quarreling around the black rocks out at the far point?

Perhaps words themselves wander off into other fields, like sheep lost
in the depths of the hills beyond the local hills so the shepherd has to
go climbing up and down, his legs aching, his breath heavy
in his chest until he spies them off there under

that far evergreen, and wrestles them down and brings them home.

(Patricia Fargnoli [source])

and:

Anyone can see that if grasping and aversion were with us all day and night without ceasing, who could ever stand them? Under that condition, living things would either die or become insane. Instead, we survive because there are natural periods of coolness, of wholeness, and ease. In fact, they last longer than the fires of our grasping and fear. It is this that sustains us. We have periods of rest making us refreshed, alive, well. Why don’t we feel thankful for this everyday Nirvana?

We already know how to let go — we do it every night when we go to sleep, and that letting go, like a good night’s sleep, is delicious. Opening in this way, we can live in the reality of our wholeness. A little letting go brings us a little peace, a greater letting go brings us a greater peace. Entering the gateless gate, we begin to treasure the moments of wholeness. We begin to trust the natural rhythm of the world, just as we trust our own sleep and how our own breath breathes itself.

(Jack Kornfield [source])

and:

Use what you have, use what the world gives you. Use the first day of fall: bright flame before winter’s deadness; harvest; orange, gold, amber; cool nights and the smell of fire. Our tree-lined streets are set ablaze, our kitchens filled with the smells of nostalgia: apples bubbling into sauce, roasting squash, cinnamon, nutmeg, cider, warmth itself. The leaves as they spark into wild color just before they die are the world’s oldest performance art, and everything we see is celebrating one last violently hued hurrah before the black and white silence of winter.

(Shauna Niequist [source])

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From the Outside In: the Golden Treasury‘s Endpapers

[See the previous entry in this series here.]

Adult readers know unambiguously what it means to “read a book.” They have an image of someone — most often themselves? — sitting somewhere in a comfortable chair, on a commuter train or in an airport terminal, good lighting from over the shoulder… The book lies open in their hands or lap, somewhere in the middle, with a sheaf of pages pinned in place behind each thumb. Because, y’know, whether the book in question is a potboiler or a metaphysical treatise, that’s where all the action is — in the middle. It’s the heart of the book.

But just inside the front and back covers? Those “pages,” the endpapers, serve a purely physical function; they’re where the dynamic stresses are greatest, where the tension between spine and glued contents would most likely result in tearing and/or separation. In a book, they’re the analogue of a painting’s picture frame: they physically hold it all together, hence are important, but they have no real point otherwise. They’re to be gotten through.

But kids harbor fewer clearcut preconceptions. From their perspective, the very first spread of paper and the very last might well be places to expect the most drama, the most meaning. And in a book or elsewhere, when faced with a large two-page spread of blank paper, few kids could resist the temptation to scribble, to color, to fill. Leaving them empty would be such a waste, no?

I don’t know, but can guess, that artists and illustrators love having the freedom to fill whole tabloid-sized sheets of whitespace, too, free from the constraints of story and the rigid geography of text on the page. Bill Watterson, creator of the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, hated the tedium of the daily strip format: day after day, year after year, working within the same narrow rectangle. (It especially had to frustrate him as the creator of such an undisciplined protagonist.) If I remember correctly, he stipulated in his contracts that if you wanted the daily strip, you had to give him a half-page on Sunday, to fill with whatever layout he wanted. His Sunday strips dazzled, even before you’d read any of the text in the speech balloons.

The publishers of kids’ books, especially illustrated ones, know all this. And the publishers of great kids’ books pull out all the stops.

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Gobsmacked by Natural History

Cover of The Golden Treasury of Natural History, by Bertha Morris Parker

[Image: Cover of The Golden Treasury of Natural History, by Bertha Morris Parker. Colors tinkered with a little to match its present look as closely as possible.]

A holiday, a small bedroom in a small house, The Boy, The Book

I don’t know what triggered the recent obsession, but something must have. Not that I’ve ever really forgotten its object; years ago, I started referring to it this way: possibly the best book anyone ever gave me. I’m not kidding myself, or you: it may not be the best-written, the book I most wish I myself had written, even my favorite book. My original copy got swallowed up into Book Heaven long ago, and I had not (until recently) laid eyes on another copy for maybe forty or more years. But for its long-term impact on me — its staying power in my head — nothing else comes close.

It came to me as a Christmas present when I must have been, oh, maybe nine or ten years old. (It certainly feels like I’ve known it that long.) Dad had always held blue-collar jobs, and Mom — when she eventually went to work (as opposed to, haha, the sheer non-working pleasure of raising four kids) — held secretarial and clerical positions. So we never had anything you could call superficially “privileged.” But at Christmas, they annually went overboard. We got so much stuff.

In retrospect, I wonder if at that time of year they might have been just throwing things at the walls of our minds to see what would stick. I know they loved us — never once doubted it, even — but they’d had little if anything like training or orientation as parents. We were like four aliens deposited in their household: total strangers, maybe even only nominally of the same species. How could they entertain us? Would we like music, maybe? (Get them an LP!) Would we want to become homemakers, or mechanics? (Get them a toy oven, or a garage — made of finger-slashing tin in case they want to become surgeons!) Artists? (A Play-Do factory! a watercolor paints set! colored pencils! crayons and coloring books! heck, throw in a jigsaw puzzle! All in the same year!)

So this one year — again, I think somewhere between third and fifth grade — I found (among the rubble of childhood avarice) two books for me: both non-fiction, both about science. One was a large-format hardcover book, maybe 9″ x 12″, maybe fifty pages long,, entirely about astronomy. I don’t remember many specifics about that book — certainly not the title. It had no paper dust cover. The front, spine, and back were of some ultra-high-gloss material; the predominant color was deep navy blue, scattered with stars. Of all the sciences, astronomy has held my attention the most, and I think to that book must belong a great deal of the credit.

But the other book: ah, the other book. That was the unforgettable one.

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Drawing (and Writing, Illuminating, Musing) Upon Infinity

Wenceslas Bible (late 14th c.): initial letter 'L'

[Image: the first page — the first letter, a capital L — of the so-called Wenceslas Bible. It’s not the Bible referenced in Jennifer O’Grady’s poem, below (for one thing, the text is in German, not Latin). But I have a feeling it’s in the same general neck of the illuminated-manuscript woods. It’s worth viewing full-size, and while you can do so by clicking the image above, a better way is by clicking this link. I couldn’t find one single authoritative page of information about this Bible edition, but this discussion of its “bathhouse babes” entertained me greatly.]

From whiskey river:

When I Met My Muse

I glanced at her and took my glasses
off — they were still singing. They buzzed
like a locust on the coffee table and then
ceased. Her voice belled forth, and the
sunlight bent. I felt the ceiling arch, and
knew that nails up there took a new grip
on whatever they touched. “I am your own
way of looking at things,” she said. “When
you allow me to live with you, every
glance at the world around you will be
a sort of salvation.” And I took her hand.

(William Stafford [source: quoted all over the place, including here])

and:

This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on seas and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.

(John Muir [source])

…and (same post as above):

The door to infinity is somewhere in the room with you, right now.

(Gina Rocca)

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Stories and Madness, Poem, Sentence, Silence

Excerpt from 'Street of Crocodiles' by Bruno Schulz, as 'edited' for J.S. Foer's 'Tree of Codes'

[Image: an excerpt from Street of Crocodiles, by Bruno Schulz.
See note at the foot of this post for more info.]

From whiskey river:

My turn now. The story of one of my insanities.

What I liked were: absurd paintings, pictures over doorways, stage sets, carnival backdrops, billboards, bright-colored prints, old-fashioned literature, church Latin, erotic books full of misspellings, the kind of novels our grandmothers read, fairy tales, little children’s books, old operas, silly old songs, the naive rhythms of country rimes.

I dreamed of Crusades, voyages of discovery that nobody had heard of, republics without histories, religious wars stamped out, revolutions in morals, movements of races and continents; I used to believe in every kind of magic.

I invented colors for the vowels. A black, E white, I red, O blue, U green. I made rules for the form and movement of every consonant, and I boasted of inventing, with rhythms from within me, a kind of poetry that all the senses, sooner or later, would recognize. And I alone would be its translator.

I began it as an investigation. I turned silences and nights into words. What was unutterable, I wrote down. I made the whirling world stand still.

(Arthur Rimbaud)

and (italicized portion, in a different translation):

For the poem does not stand outside time. True, it claims the infinite and tries to reach across time — but across, not above.

A poem, being an instance of language, hence essentially dialogue, may be a letter in a bottle thrown out to sea with the — surely not always strong — hope that it may somehow wash up somewhere, perhaps on a shoreline of the heart. In this way, too, poems are en route: they are headed toward.

Toward what? Toward something open, inhabitable, an approachable you, perhaps, an approachable reality.

(Paul Celan [source])

and:

A Certain Swirl

The classroom was dark, all the desks were empty,
and the sentence on the board was frightened to
find itself alone. The sentence wanted someone to
read it, the sentence thought it was a fine sentence, a
noble, thorough sentence, perhaps a sentence of
some importance, made of chalk dust, yes, but a sen-
tence that contained within itself a certain swirl not
unlike the nebulous heart of the unknown universe,
but if no one read it, how could it be sure? Perhaps it
was a dull sentence and that was why everyone had
left the room and turned out the lights. Night came,
and the moon with it. The sentence sat on the board
and shone. It was beautiful to look at, but no one
read it.

(Mary Ruefle [source])

and:

The brain is silent, the brain is dark, the brain tastes nothing, the brain hears nothing. All it receives are electrical impulses — not the sumptuous chocolate melting sweetly, not the oboe solo like the flight of a bird, not the tingling caress, not the pastels of peach and lavender at sunset over a coral reef — just impulses.

(Diane Ackerman [source])

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Book Review: The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

[Image: Big Top, a photograph (!) by user “*Trippy4U” at the deviantART site. More in the note
at the foot of this
(looooong) post.]

On the planet of Literature of the Fantastic (considered separately from its sister worlds, for horror and science fiction), you will find three major continents, inhabited (with a great deal of crossover) by generally three types of being.

You will find, for starters, the land of ancient and often supernatural beings: gods and lesser immortals of myth (dryads, cyclopes, and such); fairies, elves, pixies, and leprechauns; unicorns, dragons, and mermaids; any or all of the Four Horsemen (especially Death).

Across the ocean in one direction lies the land of latter-day heroics. (“Latter-day” refers to the time of this continent’s creation, although many of its denizens are centuries or even millennia of age.) Aside from humans, the most common inhabitants may be horses. Swords and other weapons are commonly brandished here, occasionally in the vicinity of immigrants and tourists from the first land, often in the direction of wild creatures invented specifically (because convenient) for the tale at hand: ents and orcs, sand worms, Frankenstein’s monster, the Jabberwock, blast-ended skrewts…

On the face of it, on the third continent we’d feel most at home. The populace here is all familiar to us, just from looking around at the (present or past) “real” world: donkeys and dogs and other domestic animals; lions and swans, friendly brontosauri; and, well, the people next door. But then we dig a little deeper and the “reality” drops away: the animals talk, not just among themselves but to us, they argue and scheme, some of them have jobs; and when we visit the people next door, we find them mixing potions in the kitchen, the surfaces of their bedroom furniture writhing with living ivy, their homes’ very walls sided not with vinyl or clapboard but with gingerbread and treacle.

Many of the Grimm “fairy” tales — which feature no fairies — fall into the latter category, and so do Aesop’s fables. Also here you’ll find whole shelves full of one-off, sui generis works with (nearly or in fact) no counterpart elsewhere.

And on one of those shelves, you’ll find Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.

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Life by a Thousand Cuts

[Image: “Webster’s New Inner Diction” (2007), by Brian Dettmer]

From Neil Gaiman’s Twitter feed, I learned of the artwork of Brian Dettmer. Dettmer uses surgical tools — scalpel, tweezers, and such — to dig down into books and other media (such as cassette tapes), revealing deep layers of what might or might not be meaning in the words and images therein.

From his “artist’s statement”:

The age of information in physical form is waning. As intangible routes thrive with quicker fluidity, material and history are being lost, slipping and eroding into the ether. Newer media swiftly flips forms, unrestricted by the weight of material and the responsibility of history. In the tangible world we are left with a frozen material but in the intangible world we may be left with nothing. History is lost as formats change from physical stability to digital distress…

In this work I begin with an existing book and seal its edges, creating an enclosed vessel full of unearthed potential. I cut into the surface of the book and dissect through it from the front. I work with knives, tweezers and surgical tools to carve one page at a time, exposing each layer while cutting around ideas and images of interest. Nothing inside the books is relocated or implanted, only removed. Images and ideas are revealed to expose alternate histories and memories.

Besides books, Dettmer also works with maps, audiocassette tapes, VHS tapes, LPs… For the items of plastic, instead of carving or cutting them he sometimes melts and/or fuses them into new shapes, such as animal (or human) skulls. Regardless of medium, the results are both beautiful and a little disconcerting.

(That said, I can’t go so far as some of the commenters I’ve seen on other sites, who are appalled that he’s treating books so shabbily.)

Here’s a seven-minute interview with Dettmer, with lots more examples of his work:

The ultimate resource, unsurprisingly, is Dettmer’s home page itself. Scroll way down on the page to see all the images.

No word, as yet, on any plans in the offing for his vivisection of Kindles, Nooks, and/or iPads. Probably not for a few years, if ever; his focus seems to be on old media threatened (or already supplanted) by new.

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