The visionary poet Ronald Johnson reading from his manuscript “The Imaginary Menagerie” reached a short passage so arresting in its lapidary compression that it deserves to be cut in stone:
who once have sung
snug in the oblong
Inscriptions are meant to pull you up short. “Stop, Traveler” is the most common beginning on the inscribed gravestones that bordered ancient Roman highways. Inscriptions in this elegiac genre give speech back to the dead. In Basil Bunting’s poem Briggflatts, a stonemason extols his craft:
Pens are too light.
Take a chisel to write.
Words, however weighty, bear a curiously unstable relation to stone. In Notre Dame de Paris Victor Hugo has Claude Frollo point at a book as he gestures from his cell window toward the sphinx-like shape of Notre Dame cathedral and utters the phrase: ceci tuera celá: This will kill that.
The chapter that follows this moment is called “Ceci tuera celá” and details the great dialectic of books undoing the Church, a story of freedom increasing through dissemination of the press, of a journey from dark to light, of the spreading literacy producing enlightenment, the testament of stone replaced by the testaments of the printing press.
Hugo’s main source about the history of architecture was the young Neo-Grec architect Henri Labrouste. Later, as if inspired to counter Hugo’s and Frollo’s prophecy, Labrouste built the Bibliothèque Ste-Geneviève. Free at last of the long-standing French obsession with the classical architectural orders, it is a library that reads like a book. Neil Levine, in a magisterial essay on Ste-Geneviève, Labrouste, and Hugo, reads the architectural details in an extended metaphor not only of the book but of the whole process of printing from movable type–from the names on the façade (which may be seen as type locked into chases) to the books of these authors that sit on the shelves directly behind the places where their names appear on the wall. Labrouste built a book of iron and stone that was functional and free, a building dedicated to contemplation and reading, absorption and study. It became a secular version of Hugo’s description of the Temple of Solomon. “It was not merely the binding of it, it was the sacred book itself. From each of its concentric ring-walls, the priests could read the word translated and made manifest to the eye, and could thus follow its transformations from sanctuary to sanctuary until, in its ultimate tabernacle, they could grasp in its most concrete yet still architectural form: the ark. Thus the word was enclosed in the building, but its image was on the envelope like the human figure on the coffin of a mummy.” Labrouste made his library perfectly reflexive and transparent, no difference between the inside and outside.
Hugo set his novel in 1482. Sixty-one years earlier, 12 March 1421, a congregation of Jews burned themselves alive in a synagogue on Judenplatz in Vienna rather than renounce their faith or be murdered by Christians. A plaque in Latin from 1497 commemorates the immolation by referring to the Jews as dogs or curs. Mozart wrote Cosi fan tutte in house 244 overlooking Judenplatz in 1783. On 12 March 1938, Nazi troops entered Vienna, 517 years to the day that the Jews burned themselves. Rachel Whiteread, a young British sculptor, unveiled her remarkable Holocaust memorial on Judenplatz on 25 October 2000, much delayed by politics from its originally scheduled completion date of 9 November 1996, the fifty-eighth anniversary of Kristallnacht.
Before the memorial could be built excavations began on Judenplatz to unearth the original synagogue. The first area dug down to was the bimah, the area where the ark is kept and the desk from which the Torah is read. Whiteread’s memorial measures 12′ x 24′ x 33′ and is a library turned inside out: the spines of the books face into the building. It is a cast made in white cement of the library’s interior. The doors, without hinges or handles, cannot be opened. The library cannot be entered because the imaginary interior, far from being empty, is solid: the presence of absence. “Casting the internal–If Rachel could drink a couple of quarts of plaster or pour resin down her throat, wait until it sets and then peel herself away, I feel she would. She shows us the unseen, the inside out, the parts that go unrecognized,” observed A. M. Homes.
John Baldessari, the California conceptual artist, still has nine and a half boxes of the ashes of his paintings. In 1969, when he realized that he would stop painting, he found a crematorium that would burn his paintings. His motive was to complete the cycle of the chemicals that made up his oil paints by returning them to earth. The original installation at the Jewish Museum in New York was to be an urn containing some of the ashes placed in one wall with a plaque beside it. A major funder of the show said she would withdraw funding if this was done. So Baldessari placed the urn on a pedestal. The urn he chose among the many on offer was in the shape of a book. This was the beginning of conceptual art, the ashes of paintings interred in an urn shaped like a book.
Horace (Odes 3.30.1) claimed he had written poems more enduring (perennior) than bronze and outlasting the pyramids. In “Lector Aere Perennior”–the reader more enduring than bronze–J. V. Cunningham disagrees with Horace. Every poet depends not just on paper or stone or bronze but on readers for his relative immortality. Yet the reader is a problem. What must the reader do if the poet is to have lasting fame? For Cunningham the reader must be:
Some man so deftly mad
His metamorphosed shade,
Leaving the flesh it had,
Breathes on the words they made.
The reader dies (the orgasmic “little death” of the text) that the poet may live again. Transported by the words of the poet, the reader transmigrates his soul and “breathes on the words they make.” His and mine become ours, a more amazing dialectic than turning the book of stone into the book of print.
An epigram by Plato had been a favorite of mine long before Ronald Johnson read to me from his inscription-like “Imaginary Menagerie.” Plato writes that it is said by Socrates to Agathon:
Kissing Agathon, I found
My soul at my lips.
–It went there, hoping
To slip across.
It is one of the epigrams from The Greek Anthology. Is it somewhere carved in stone? Did each passing Greek read it aloud? Were the lines alternately painted black and red? As the Greek read the epigram aloud his soul too was at his lips, trying to slip across. From his lips to the stone, in a direction opposite that of Socrates whose lips were meeting those welcoming closed lips of Agathon. It is the soul that remembers and speaks in the poem, from within Socrates’ silence.
But though the soul rises to slip across it is a poor thing because it falls back–desire wants to slip across, believes in its heart that metempsychosis is possible, in its delusion a poor thing. This is the giving soul, the one that acknowledges and welcomes the other, not the Freudian narcissists whose lips kiss only images of themselves. And this happens every time we read.
When we read we slip across; we do not fall back. The words they made are like the love we had: the poem read through is like the exhausted beloved, over there, on the other side where we just were. The reader succeeds precisely where Orpheus fails Eurydice. We look back fondly. We behold the lineaments of gratified desire, what men and women in each other do require.
Chris Marker’s film La Jetée (The Jetty, France, 1962) runs 28 minutes and is constructed entirely of stills, except for a single moment of movement.
A brief synopsis of La Jetée will put the complexity of this moment in perspective. The Third World War has taken place; the earth is radioactive, uninhabitable; the victors rule underground over a kingdom of rats; concentration camps flourish one again. The story is of a veteran who survived the war and who carries within him a single image of peacetime: a woman’s face he had seen as a child on the jetty at Orly Airport. Because his imagery is so vivid the camp commandants subject him to experiments: he is injected, travels to the past and eventually to the future. He finds the woman he saw as a child; they fall in love. The moment of movement occurs after they consummate their love.
The woman opens her eyes and blinks three times, looking directly out of the screen. She wakes to look at her lover looking at her. He is not seen by us, but his presence is established by a series of overlapping dissolves in which the sleeping woman changes positions as she sleeps and he watches. The sound over these shots is of bird cries reaching a crescendo–so intense the cries sound like squeals of pain, a mysterious jouissance. (Could this be a Blakean moment? “How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way / Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?”)
One of the abiding mysteries of film is that it is a medium of visible absence. In a notebook poem William Blake asked and answered several specific questions, among them the following:
What is it men do in women require?
The lineaments of Gratified Desire.
What is it women do in men require?
The lineaments of Gratified Desire.
To my knowledge, even using what he called his “infernal methods,” Blake never engraved these lapidary lines.
What happens when we read a story, a poem, a book, a building? Are we deftly mad enough to slip over? We love what looks back at us, studying to know everything, knowing the knowledge of love is inexhaustible, and knowing also that such work of the imagination is beyond the reach of even our best words. After having slipped across we return to ourselves, our experience enriched. The reader is like Jacob, blessed by the angel he wrestled. Touched on the thigh before he was released, Jacob was left with a limp. The angel touches us before we are released. If there is a new limp once we return from our struggle, our abandon, our transport, it is the happy fault–the felix culpa–that touches another soul, and both are the better for it. The poet gains his brief immortality; and we return to our mortality exhausted and renewed. Within those moments of movement while we read, and remembering what we read, acknowledging the autonomy and mystery of it, we briefly become the kind of person Henry James wished us to become: one on whom nothing is lost.
Published 2012 in Gus Blaisdell Collected. This essay was originally intended for Inscriptions, a deluxe-edition book that was produced by Jack W. Stauffacher in 2003 to commemorate the lapidary inscriptions on the Old Public Library of San Francisco on the occasion of the building’s conversion into a new museum of Asian art. In the end, however, the essay was not used.