Last April I was invited to take part in the city-wide “Words on Fire” series, the point of which was to recall through various public events the historical destruction of books at the hands of the Nazis and to reaffirm the triumph of free expression. I agreed to give an informal talk at the Mobius Gallery, where organizers had mounted an exhibit of various artists who use the book as subject matter.
The exhibit, which I patrolled at its perimeters with the distracted intensity of one who would shortly be “on,” was wonderfully eclectic, books and printed pages apprehended from the most un-usual perspectives in installations, collages, photographs (I don’t recall any paintings)….What the pieces shared in common was that each in some way drew on the extraordinary symbolic potency of bound lettered pages. Drew on it, and in so doing added to it.
Interesting as were my various encounters that afternoon, only one proved to be a genuine ‘haunt,’ and that was, oddly enough, the first thing I’d set eyes on upon entering: an enormous photograph by artist Rosamond Purcell.
When I say that the work haunted me, I mean that it stuck in my mind for days as a charged retinal after-image. Whenever I thought of it—which was fairly often—it was covetously. And the reason I coveted it was that I wanted to stare at it; I felt it held something for me. For once I acted. I followed up on my at-traction to the piece: this issue has a suite of Rosamond Purcell’s photographs, and, on the cover, the image that first captured me.
At first it was just the abstract beauty that slowed and then arrested my glance. I was drawn by way of light, color, and sharply textured shapes into what seemed to be some kind of excavation site. Right away I felt the gaping impulse, the visceral pull we all have to look into something that has been laid open to view, whether it is a building half gone to the wrecking ball or a street surface opened to its intestinal pipes and urban sediment. Then came the exhilarating double-take: the mind’s jarring shift from an abstract to a literal apprehension. Those marks on the bottom were, I suddenly realized, lines of print, parts of sentences. That meant that the lit-up verticals on the left, straight as stalks of grain, were the edges of pages. This jaggedly bit-into thing was a book! And the images mounted beside it on the wall, many of them similarly perched on the very edge of abstraction, were likewise books.
I register double-takes every day—the sidewalk mound that suddenly gathers from a dead animal to a child’s brown cap in the space of a stride, the distant lake that turns out to be the galvanized roof of a shed. Most of them don’t stick. But the leaps and shifts I went through when I first looked at this artist’s images are something else again. These works enact the rarest and happiest marriage of elements. Beautiful in themselves—each an instance of the shapes and shadings of the world ambushed by the artist’s eye—they also induce, in the echo-life of the double-take, the most provocative meditations on the defining paradoxes of the book. The vivid illumination of damage in these photographs—whether from rot, mold, rodent or insect—is visually compelling; it also isolates and heightens the idea of the book as material object. We see that it is subject like any other thing to the processes of erosion and decay. Brooding, I half-remember a quote I have not been able to track down, something to the effect that a hammer reveals its hammer-ness most glaringly when it is broken. Nietzsche? Heidegger?
But this is not the only paradox I have in mind. There is also the paradox that when a book is most conspicuously, most glaringly, a material object—in decomposition, say—it is somehow closest to revealing its immaterial essence: its soul, the hidden weather of its signs and meanings. To pounce, as if by surprise attack, on the estranged signifier, to glimpse it out of context, is to have one’s face pushed right down into the business of signification. What could be more profound? Or unlikely—that an eaten-away, a mildewed, a nest-inhabited, a hammered-into print artifact should turn out to be the intimate back door opening onto the inner place of reading?
Take a few minutes to stare at the cover. Let your eye traverse the flaky ridges of the eroded pages, remarking their surprising substantiality, their pageness. Think of the chewed-out hole as a kind of canyon, the edges become like terraced ledges where sense breaks off and sentences go flying straight on into nothingness. Material amnesia. The looker has to feel like an archeologist, staring at the assault of time upon the object which would transcend time . . .
The more I later contemplated these images, following their trails of suggestion, the more I found myself thinking of Mark Slouka’s essay herein, “Historical Vertigo.” The connection—this much I see—has to do with materiality, with signification, with things that last and those that don’t. Slouka’s essay plays with a different, but to my mind not unrelated, set of oppositions. A novelist and essayist much preoccupied with history, and also something of a techno-skeptic (his 1995 book The War of the Worlds raised the deepest questions about the cultural impact of the then-nascent cyber-culture), Slouka was a latecomer to the e-mail zeitgeist that most of us now take for granted. His e-baptism took place while he was living in the ancient European capital of Prague, a fact which makes it almost inevitable that the flint of his intellect should strike up the sparks of irony. When you read the piece you will see just how contradiction creates detachment, and how detachment offers purchase on a civilized perspective not readily found in our hyper-midst.
If part of the pleasure—and discipline—of looking at Rosamond Purcell’s book photographs is in recognizing how the intensification of material decay can quicken our awareness of the immaterial—the spirit that strings of words can conjure up—so reading Slouka we come face to face with other oppositions. We watch as the author’s uneasiness with the ephemerality and lightness of e-mail starts him dwelling on the permanence and gravity of the pre-electronic way of doing things, a dialectical swing that eventually leads him toward the self-correcting gesture of writing his important letters with a steel-nib pen. This initiative, in turn, will throw a clarifying light on the process of instant communication, allowing us to weigh its conspicuous gains against some of the less obvious losses.
When I consider Purcell’s images and Slouka’s reflections side by side, I can’t help but start thinking about Time. Time, the original capitalized abstraction, contemplation of which I sometimes think has displaced whatever slight affective life I might once have had. But that’s another story. My interest here is just to mark out the different kinds of time these expressions comprehend.
First, there is the time of nature—of process, of decay—the universal (if here almost personalized) time that W. H. Auden declared was “indifferent in a week / To a beautiful physique,” as well as the time of artistic eternity petitioned in the writing and making of books, the time which, as the poet said in his very next lines, “Worships language and forgives / Everyone by whom it lives.”
Then there is the time of cities and of nations, of Slouka’s Prague, which we feel almost as a tangible exhalation when we walk where people have lived for hundreds and thousands of years. Against this, drawing further on the essay, we set out that newest of human creations, nano-time, the time of the global instant, that hybrid element which we increasingly call home.
Which leaves us where? Nowhere we can orient ourselves, that much is certain. It strands us in the put-upon condition of late modernity: anxious, challenged, groping the rockface for places to grip, more than ever before in history in need of the stabilizing perspectives of literature, which even as it piques and provokes, installs us in that beautiful haven, the one paradoxically invoked by images of physical books under assault. There is much to be probed here. For now let me just invite you to enjoy the havens we have brought together.
Sven Birkerts is coeditor of AGNI. He is the author of ten books: An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on 20th Century Literature (William Morrow), The Electric Life: Essays on Modern Poetry (William Morrow), American Energies: Essays on Fiction (William Morrow), The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Faber & Faber), Readings (Graywolf), My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time (Viking, 2002), Reading Life (Graywolf, 2007), Then, Again: The Art of Time in the Memoir (Graywolf, 2008), The Other Walk (Graywolf, 2011), and Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age (Graywolf, 2015). He has edited Tolstoy’s Dictaphone: Writers and the Muse (Graywolf) as well as Writing Well (with Donald Hall) and The Evolving Canon (Allyn & Bacon).
He has received grants from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation. He was winner of the Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle in 1985 and the Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award from PEN for the best book of essays in 1990. Birkerts has reviewed regularly for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, Esquire, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Mirabella, Parnassus, The Yale Review, and other publications. He has taught writing at Harvard University, Emerson College, Amherst College, Mt. Holyoke College, and the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars, which he directed for ten years. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts. (updated 10/2022)