Monday, August 3, 2009

Too Loud a Solitude

It's one of the saddest images I've seen, and it's hidden in a book on interior design that I could no longer name, much less track down. It shows a kitchen adorned with shelves of old leather-bound books, beautiful in a patrician and deeply incongruous way - surely the last place you'd want to keep old, valuable volumes is the room in which you fry stuff. But of course the shelves aren't real shelves, just shallow indentations in the wooden panelling, and the books aren't real books, just rows of old spines ripped from Eastern European libraries sold by the metre to some American without a sense of taste or shame, and then glued onto the panelling (the spines, not the American).

I was never able to recover that picture, but thanks to a powerful combination of the Internet and friends I'm able to point you to a couple of lesser examples of this troubling phenomenon: Books by the Yard (h/t Jolisa), whose target clientele comprises people whose 'bookcase or study could use a boost in the books department', and the wonderful replica book panels of The Manor Bindery (h/t Paul) good for a variety of uses, such as decorating the interior of an elevator or even filling a bookcase.

Sitting at the intersection between house porn and the crumbling of civilisation, the kitchen-cum-library fashioned from the former pride of the Eastern bloc goes well beyond the generic and time-honoured practice of decorating with books, though, and is altogether more apocalyptic. Italians have some experience of their culture being ransacked or sold off, but I struggle to think of historical examples that match that particular ignominy of having one’s book collections literally taken apart for the purposes of adorning somebody else’s walls. Even the firebombing of the National Library in Sarajevo had an overtly criminal and memoricidal intent that seems refreshingly above board in comparison.

Czechoslovakian author Bohumil Hrabal wrote Too Loud a Solitude - which happens to be a book about a chap whose job it is to destroy books - in the early nineteen-seventies, at a time when his publishing privileges had been revoked. It has, I think, one of the best opening sentences in literature:
For thirty-five years I’ve been in wastepaper, and it’s my love story.
It is also a book about books, not only in the sense of carriers of knowledge and culture but also, and inextricably, in the sense of material objects with a weight, a feel, an odour, a cycle of production and demise. Hrabal wallows indeed with much comic glee in describing the putrid smell and appearance of moulding books (‘a dull, grey-beige mass with the consistency of stale bread’), the colonies of pests that thrive in warehouses where old putrefying paper is kept, the swarms of flesh flies that, unable to resist the lure of the blood from the day’s delivery of used butcher’s paper, stick to the pages of Rilke and Novalis until they too are crushed to death.

The operator of the wastepaper press, Haňt'a, is a sort of book gnome, a drunk, imbued unwittingly, or so he claims, with the contents of those volumes, his work, his obsession. Unable to regard books as mere waste products, things that were always lifeless, he has developed loving and elaborate funeral rites, and packs them for their last voyage into bales that contain just the right mix of German philosophy and Czech poetry or reproductions of impressionist paintings. The odd volume he saves and takes home to a small apartment that he has converted - yes, the kitchen too - into a makeshift library, a perilously unstable cathedral of shelves always in danger of falling and crushing him in his sleep. Think the Capuchin Crypt, but with books - here’s an artist’s impression from an exhibition inspired by the novel:

What a thing, a house of made of books. If it came to that, wouldn’t you want to choose the titles, insist that, say, Plato or Voltaire or Marx rather than Goethe or that leech Wordsworth be used for the foundations and the load-bearing walls?)

But I digress. Haňt'a loves books but what horrifies him is not the thought of having to destroy them - on the contrary, he dreams for his retirement of buying off the press and continuing the work in his garden - but rather the attitude of the new crews, who do so efficiently and dispassionately, without intelligence nor conscience.
For thirty-five years I’d lived with, lived through, a daily Sisyphus complex, the kind so beautifully described for me by Messrs. Sartre and Camus, especially the latter: the more bales driven out of my courtyard, the more wastepaper filled my cellar, whereas the Brigade of Socialist Labour at Bubny was always on schedule. Now they were back at work, nicely tanned, […] they just went on working, pulling covers off books and tossing the bristling, horrified pages on the conveyor belt with the utmost calm and indifference, with no feeling for what the book might mean, no thought that somebody had to write the book, somebody had to edit it, somebody had to design it, somebody had to set it, somebody had to proofread it, somebody had to make the corrections, somebody had to read the galley proofs, print the book, and somebody had to bind the book, and somebody had to pack the books into boxes, and somebody had to do the accounts, and somebody had to decide that the book was unfit to read, and somebody had to order it pulped, and somebody had to put all the books in storage, and somebody had to load them onto the truck, and somebody had to drive the truck here, where workers wearing orange and baby-blue gloves tore out the book’s innards and tossed them onto the conveyor belt, which silently, inexorably jerked the bristling pages off to the gigantic press to turn them into bales, which went on to the paper mill to become innocent, white, immaculately letter-free paper, which eventually would be made into other, new, books. (pp. 68-69)
A book is an object, but an object like no other, and Haňt'a’s loving and self-appointed caretakership is a tribute to that. But suddenly his job too is brutally recycled, transformed, stripped of all extraneous meaning, and he is dispatched to a printing press to make bales of blank paper. ‘I, who couldn’t live without the prospect of rescuing a beautiful book from the odious waste, I would be compacting immaculately, inhumanly clean paper!’ (p. 79) In the interest of not giving away the ending I shall refrain from telling you how Haňt'a responds to this horrifying prospect, except to say it involves one last trip to his beloved subterranean press, there to lie amongst his beloved rejects one final time.

Hrabal's grave in the village of Hradištko. Image credit.
Wait, I did give it away, didn’t I? No matter. Hrabal himself left us enigmatically at the age of 82 when he fall from a fifth-floor window of the Bulovka Hospital whilst feeding some pigeons. He, who had written many times of suicides jumping off the fifth floor of buildings. Make of that what you will, and also of Haňt'a’s little story, written with an understandable surplus of bitterness but also more than a little joy and humour by an author who might have regarded himself as just that, a man in a hole with a shovel, a waste citizen, or a furtive presence in the undergrounds of Prague (mostly a cellar and the sewers, though, nothing too romantic).

Then came 1989 and the publication of those of his works that were still banned in Czechoslovakia, later even a film adaptation of Too Loud a Solitude (in which he starred, already an octogenarian, as 'man with trolley'), nearly three decades after Jiří Menzel’s brilliant Closely Watched Trains. Another adaptation is in the works, this time with puppetry and animation, and you can follow its somewhat uncertain status here. Oh, and there is a graphic novel, too.

I take all this persistent interest to mean that this little novel, timely in spite or perhaps thanks to its forcibly delayed publication, has hit a raw nerve in this, the twilight of the age of print. Perhaps it bears a sense that the book really is a building block, a piece of cultural masonry, and that we need to understand how it fits in our architectures of knowledge before (whilst?) we dismantle them and rebuild them.

Ready to turn into an immaculately, inhumanly blank page at the touch of a button.
We’re going to hear a lot over the next decade, as most assuredly we have already begun to, from TED speakers and tech gurus about outdated business models and necessary ways forward, and why the printed book is an obstacle to the spread of knowledge, an accident of history that needs to make way for the new. They’ll call it perhaps the power of publishing without publishers, and there will be some truth and some value in their ideas. But as a mental exercise, and to get the sceptical juices flowing and memory in its proper gear, I think I shall always pause for a second and mentally replace their garb with the orange uniforms and baby-blue gloves of the Brigade of Socialist Labour at Bubny.
Gone were the days of small joys, of finds, of books thrown away by mistake: these people represented a new way of thinking. Even if each of the workers took home one book from each printing as payment in kind, it wouldn't be the same, it would still be the end of us, the old guard, because we were all educated unwittingly.

Bohumil Hrabal. Too Loud a Solitude (tr. Michael Henry Heim). London, Abacus, 1993.
James Wood. ‘Bohumil Hrabal’.
The London Review of Books, 4 January 2001.
Mats Larsson. ‘Bohumil Hrabal - the Close Watcher of Trains’ (trans. Kathryn Boyer). The Art Bin.

There is a gallery of sorts for this post, here. Some extended quotations and a couple more images.


Paul said...

Yes, yes yes! The enemies of the Book are legion, and they are philistine.

Yesterday I shut down the Mac and read an essay in a book called the Age of Austerity, published in 1963 and about Britain in the aftermath of the War. I had been looking for it for years, mostly because I had the title wrong, and I found it in my university's library (with the help of Internet). I had those sensations of which you write, and the sense that I was one of many readers - that by recovering this book from the off-campus store in which it languished, I was participating in its life (and perhaps extending it). I could not have that experience on Internet: at best I could read a page or two of a facsimile.

There is an awful lot of good reading which has not reached Internet, and perhaps never will. The futurologists are not concerned about this absence, because they are so convinced that the Book has been surpassed by other technologies, as if printing were merely a technology.

And, coincidenza, Closely Watched Trains is one of my favourite films.

Word verification: podedi: Italian river pollution.

Philip said...

Thanks for another fine article. The quote about the effort needed to produce, proscribe and destroy a book is wonderful, and puts me uneasily in mind of the scene in Rollerball (the real one, not the remake) where Ralph Richardson's librarian discovers that a large chunk of computerised history has been lost forever owing to a glitch.

On the other hand, when PDFs and Wikipedia are all we have to rely on, perhaps our memories will improve.

Many thanks too for the sidebar link, though in the interests of nocturnal tranquillity I should perhaps point out that the living Bierce would never have referred to himself as a poet, much less while dedicating a book to himself. So, Major, if you're listening - he said it, not me.

Word Verification: tonosses, the twelve tossable tones on the chromatic scale of casual serial music.

Giovanni Tiso said...

So, Major, if you're listening - he said it, not me.

Did I mention that our youngest is called Ambrose, and I'm therefore an authority? And by the way, the sidebar does change independently of the post, so it might pay to specify for the benefit of future historians that we're referring to this, and appositely, insofar you'd have to change a few bits in that long quotation of Hrabal's to accommodate what does. I also don't mind telling you that living in New Zealand (motto: "the shipping costs will kill you"), the choice of whether to opt for the electronic or paper version of the book pretty much took itself, and likewise the Kindle will appeal to us in a particular way when its time comes.

Daphne Moran said...

Thanks for this, another great post.

It reminded me that while I was reading 'Infinite Jest' I had fantasies about ripping out the pages as I read them so that the book would get smaller and smaller as I left leaves for other people to pick up and read. For the last year or so I've had closet technolust for an e-book reader. I feel a bit ashamed but oh, the idea of being able to carry 'The Tunnel' and all my engineering texts in my handbag just seems so wonderful. The idea of hyperlinking in and out of books and worlds and dictionaries seems really exciting to me. The death of the book conversation often makes me think about exactly what reading means to me, which often leads me back to 'Infinite Jest' and the double bookmark, page flicking joy/frustration/confusion of Wallace's footnotes. Thanks G.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Wow, I love the picture of the book-house. Kind of my dream environment, actually (though some of them have got a bit scuffed, it would appear) ...

I take it you're familiar with Elias Canetti's classic novel Auto-da-fe [Die Blendung] -- perhaps the most extreme portrait of a book-collector in literature?

Giovanni Tiso said...

Yes, I love Canetti and regret not having brought to New Zealand my old copies from high school of Auto da Fe and The Tongue Set Free. As I might have mentioned before, I packed all the wrong books: lots of works by Italian authors that turned out to be more or less readily available here, instead of much loved translations into Italian of foreign works not originally in English - Borges, Canetti, the Russians, even Moby Dick translated by Pavese, plus Hrabal himself. Getting rid of all those books was heartbreaking and I chose so badly to boot.

stephen said...

There are some books (ie literary works) whose paper incarnations I no longer possess, but I can remember the copies in which I first encountered them distinctly. Conversely there are some books (the objects) which I own which remind me of when I first read them, the people who gave them to me, the surrounding circumstances and so on. The book-object is an important node in its own right in the relationships between me and the work and my personal history.

By contrast I discard and lose and break electronic devices. And anyway, the reader device isn't associated with one literary work (or collection thereof). It's decoupled somehow. I can't get strongly attached to a laptop or a PDA or a reader the way I could to a favourite book.

llew said...

"Conversely there are some books (the objects) which I own which remind me of when I first read them, the people who gave them to me, the surrounding circumstances and so on."

Heh, years ago my dad gave me his prized copy of Rafael Sabatini's Captain Blood. It had a large squashed & dried spider just inside the cover. I still have that book somewhere, but I didn't read it until I found an old paperback copy at a 2nd hand bookshop years later. The curse of the spider.

David Cauchi said...

Painting has been declared dead on a regular basis since the invention of photography. The invention of the CD was meant to be the death knell of vinyl records.

Both paintings and records are doing quite well.

The printed book may well go through some changes once electronic readers become cheaply available, but I don't see it disappearing.

It'll probably end up being collected by a few obsessives, but mostly by the wealthy as a status symbol.

David Cauchi said...

Of course, the printed book becoming rare and valuable will make cutting it up that much more pleasurable.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Painting doesn't have anywhere near the cultural currency it once had. It used to be one of the main mediums for telling stories - the spread of literacy put an end to that - and photography is now the principal means of recording one's likeness. But I wasn't really lamenting the demise of the printed book per se. I think it will take a while, if it happens at all - it may yet well prove to be more resilient than other technologies that have made way for the digital. What interests me are the areas of attrition and resistance, the people and the stories that call attention to what is likely to get lost in transitions of this kind.

@daphne I love the idea of ripping Infinite Jest as you go. And what is it with authors who take their own lives? But you also reminded me of a book I'm going to discuss here very soon, this one. Its official presentation consisted of film theorist Francesco Cassetti ripping off its pages one by one, explaining that there was no better way of reading the work.

Paul said...

[throws hands up in exaggerated display of exasperation] What ever made you think that the primary purpose of painting (apologies for alliteration) was recording a likeness or telling a story? The purpose of painting is painting itself, which has become apparent (if it were not so already) by the liberation of painting from its representational and story telling duties by the invention of photography and the popularising of the novel, respectively. Painting has flourished since this liberation. Before photography and the novel, landscape paintings had to to tell stories; think of all those Claude Lorrains. Since then, landscape can be painted for itself. The portrait has also been liberated from the purely representational role: the only form of painting which died as a result of photography was the miniature, since a simple likeness could be made by a photograph.

Photography and the novel date from the first half of the 19th Century. Your claim that painting lacks the cultural currency it once had must account for everything that has been painted since then.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I walked right into that one, didn't I? But I'll stand by that, I think that at the times of, say, Giotto, painting was a supreme art from which people derived instruction as well as aesthetic gratification (like cinema now perhaps?), whereas nowadays it has to vie with so much else and really are painters as highly regarded in society as they were back then? Are they so relevant and absolutely central to the culture? I personally think not, the powerful example of Picasso painting Guernica notwithstanding.

Portraiture too was a significant function of that particular technology, a function that has been largely taken over (not to mention popularised, made cheaper and more accessible) by photography. You say it's good, that painting has been relieved from that task, but it was a bloody important one, and besides there's nothing whatsoever that is menial about representation (or storytelling for that matter).

Francesco Ginelli said...

Actually Housingworks too, a lovely and charity devoted used bookstore/cafe sells books-by-the-foot:

Indeed, I have been a bit disappointed in learning that a place I was instantaneously electing as a favorite spot of mine in NYC was indulging in such a vile act, but I also concluded I was probably being snob.

I also reckon you would enjoy the Shakespeare and Company used book library here in Paris (to the best of my knowledge they do not sell by the foot or any other metric measure)


Taramoc said...

I tend to agree with Paul, relieving painting from the duty of having to record a likeness or telling a story, liberated it to the point that it went in all the directions that abstract artists have stretched it into. There was probably a social reason for that, since before that most of the paintings were commissioned by someone with their own agenda, be religious or celebratory in nature.

When literature and photography came along, they became instantly a better medium to propagate images or stories, because of the largest reach, so painting could go in more introspective and impulsive directions, if you will. One of the end results is that most visual art these days is achieved through a combination of subject and material it’s made of, while photography and literature are still mainly defined by the content and not the material they are printed on.

One could try to stretch that parallel to books, and the inevitable conclusion is that eventually the only books that should be printed would have to be those that they cannot be reproduced digitally. It may be because the material they are made of has to be part of the experience (an example may be those children books that have embedded in them rough fabric to stimulate a tactile response from the child), or pop-up books (even if you could create an holographic add-on to the kindle), or books with large photographs that needs to be shown in their natural size to be effective (Where’s Waldo books come to mind).

On the other side, one wonders how something like the kindle will affect the content in a way that normal books cannot. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine that eventually I could have in my kindle any of the books of the Library of Babel, as imagined by Borges. Or a real infinite version of the “C’era una volta un re…” nursery rhyme. The limitation of the number of pages may disappear as well (come to think about it, the very concept of page may not be necessary anymore).

I’m a bit old fashion myself though, and even I’ll probably buy a kindle eventually, I’ve the feeling that the printed book will always be around together with it.

By the way Giovanni, thanks for this post, outstanding as usual (oxymoron alert).

Giovanni Tiso said...

I should put a note somewhere regarding whether people are allowed to disagree with me or not. Until then, I'll begrudgingly concede your excellent points.

It’s not much of a stretch to imagine that eventually I could have in my kindle any of the books of the Library of Babel, as imagined by Borges. Or a real infinite version of the “C’era una volta un re…” nursery rhyme. The limitation of the number of pages may disappear as well (come to think about it, the very concept of page may not be necessary anymore).

The Kindle could become a content generating machine, produce the hundred billion poems of Queneau or the catalogue of the Library of Babel - not to mention the library itself, as you note. At the moment they seem to be pushing the most crudely remediated content (as per Bolter and Grusin) and there is no trace of native content, the kind of born digital literature well established on the Net.

As for what cannot in fact be remediated, I gave the example a while ago of the mirror page in Elmer's Best Friend. I've since updated that post with a link to the work of Pania Press, which is a very pertinent example.

@Ashtar Thank you, lovely links. On the subject of second-hand bookshops, in Wellington we have the Downtown Ministry bookfair and it's less than a month away. They let you loose on over 50,000 books priced 2 dollars each on the Saturday, 1 dollar on the Sunday. It's like being in Haňt'a's wastepaper paradise, and you also find the kinds of hopelessly outdated books (therefore of even greater interest to me) that second-hand bookshops wouldn't bother to stock. I can't wait.

David Cauchi said...

Well, in the time of Giotto, painters were usually paid less than the person who made the frames to go round their paintings. They were considered to be not very important craftsmen, and were paid based on the value of the gold leaf and lapis lazuli they used.

I'd say the status of painters is much higher now than in Giotto's time.

One of the main effects of the revolutionary avant-garde movement in 15th century Italian painting was the first changes in that status. Rather than the grade of materials determining the value of the work, it was whose hand had done the work. Painting began to be recognised as an intellectual exercise. Unfortunately, this quickly became academicised, and painting stagnated for 500 years.

Interestingly, it wasn't until the invention of photography and near-universal literacy that painting again went through such revolutionary changes.

Giovanni questions painting's relevance and points out it has to vie with so much else. I'd argue that a lot of that so much else has painting as its source, especially cinema and advertising. Painting's ubiquity may render it invisible.

Our highly visually literate culture simply wouldn't exist without it.

I question the book's relevance (not that it's a competition).

Paul said...

I don't think it that Painting has been relieved of the task of portraiture but that it has other options. Portraiture itself now has much more scope than when portraitists were tied by patronage and committed to likeness. Painting does have to compete with other media - it has lost its position of supremacy - but it can do a lot more than ever before.

That said, I would take issue with the claim that painting stagnated for 500 years - far too pre-Raphaelite for me. Rather, it went through changes of taste. Painting probably does not have the status it once enjoyed, but that is as much because of modern changes of taste as anything that painters have done.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I'd say the status of painters is much higher now than in Giotto's time.

One of the main effects of the revolutionary avant-garde movement in 15th century Italian painting was the first changes in that status.

I don't know if what you write applies to other painters of his time, and we're moving into an area when I'm in great danger of talking through a hole in my head, but Cimabue was very highly regarded and Giotto himself was a giant of his time, a superstar; when he died he was buried in Santa Maria del Fiore which is as high a honour as you could aspire to. More generally reading Le vite by Vasari one gets the sense of the importance of painters and sculptors even before the Renaissance proper.

Paul said...

You are right. The were a handful of artists of the proto-Renaissance who had public status, of which Giotto and Cimabue were the most eminent. Giotto was also an architect, of course. Most painters, however, were guild members: craftsmen bound by the rules of their trade.

Giovanni Tiso said...

It's not like before the thirteenth century in Europe there were artists of renown in any other sphere, though. Dante, Boccaccio and Giotto were the central cultural figures of their time, as were Michelangelo and Leonardo, Caravaggio and Rembrandt later on. Morte importantly, they were popular figures. I'm not sure that contemporary painters have that kind of popular appeal nowadays.

David Cauchi said...

Until about the middle of the 15th century, we do not even know most painters' names. They are known as 'Master of the such-and-such cycle' or something similar.

I would say that, if you were able to assemble a sample of contemporaries of Giotto and a similar sample of contemporaries of ours, a higher proportion of the contemporaries of ours would know the names Damien Hirst or Andy Warhol than contemporaries of Giotto know his or Cimabue.

Hmm, I feel a little guilty for derailing the conversation by using a painting analogy in the first place. I wonder if I could use that as a demonstration of painting's relevance?

David Cauchi said...

I'd also suggest that, in 500 years time, it'll be the big superstar artists like Hirst and Koon who are used to exemplify our society, rather than movie stars, rock musicians, or novelists.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I would say that, if you were able to assemble a sample of contemporaries of Giotto and a similar sample of contemporaries of ours, a higher proportion of the contemporaries of ours would know the names Damien Hirst or Andy Warhol than contemporaries of Giotto know his or Cimabue.

or Duccio, Simone Martini, etc. But there were no mass media at the time, so that's entirely probable. I don't see a Warhol or a Hirst making a work with the scope of the Scrovegni chapel, however, nor the Sistine. Guernica is the only painting I can think of that is in any way comparable. But there goes that hole in my head again.

I'd also suggest that, in 500 years time, it'll be the big superstar artists like Hirst and Koon who are used to exemplify our society, rather than movie stars, rock musicians, or novelists.

Good lord, I personally hope it isn't Koons! But I think it will be the filmmakers, not the painters or sculptors.

David Cauchi said...

Don't get me wrong, the idea of Hirst, Koons, Warhol et al defining us is a deeply depressing prospect.

Filmmakers are possible (Herzog!), but there are problems with film lasting.

I'm assuming here that there will not be a continuous civilisation, but not a complete collapse either.

But who knows? The only reasonable prediction you can make about the future is that it will be nothing like you think it'll be.

David Cauchi said...

Oh, and there are several arguments that can be made against the Sistine Chapel. I'm not a fan.

I find the early renaissance much more interesting than the so-called high renaissance. And I wouldn't take Vasari too seriously. He was highly partial.

The best artist of the 20th century was Francis Picabia, not Picasso or Duchamp (who both ripped him off). Picabia invented abstract painting (a contentious but arguable claim) then abandoned it after a couple of years to invent a whole lot of new stuff.

I'd like him to represent us for futurity.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I'd like him to represent us for futurity.

And I'd like Renoir senior to be preferred to Monet, Renoir junior to Orson Welles. But is it going to happen? I think not.

Filmmakers are possible (Herzog!), but there are problems with film lasting.

Hah! See, the author of the book already mentioned upthread would agree with you entirely, and did argue once at a film conference that 300 years from now film historians won't have access to Citizen Kane, just to what was written about it. So you see there was never any derailing.

keri h said...

David Gauchi - h-what?
There is an ectraordinary amount of chance/randomness when it comes to what art survives and what does not.
Koons? Picabia?
The Sistine Chapel (I am an atheist) will be alive as long as Roman Catholithism lasts.
You seem to be confusing (as others have done in this thread) your personal choices with a desire for their eternity.
The best, most energising and or lasting artists tend to be 'folk.'
Or anonymous.

Taramoc said...

I find the whole concept of things by which our era will be remembered in 500 years quite frankly obsolete.

There's been such a fragmentation in people's taste (or may be more appropriately, the capacity of whoever provides content to appeal to very diverse segment of the population) in the last century, that it's hard to pinpoint any kind of individual or group that has the authority to decide what defines a decade or a century.

Also, the creation of auto celebratory and popularized institutions like the Oscars or the Nobel Prize (for literature) have given a quick and effective way for people to find out what is the best in a particular period.

Don't get me wrong, we all agree that most of the movies that win Oscars are not worthy to be remembered the next year, never mind in a century or two, but that may just be our opinion, and the majority may go for those broader and easier classifications.

Another thing that has lost a lot of relevance in the last twenty years (at least in my mind) is the whole idea that we will lose some of these old masterpieces with time. I'll be willing to bet that Citizen Kane is present in the houses (via DVD) or Hard Drives (via peer to peer filesharing) of thousands of people around the globe. The only way I can see it disappearing in 300 years is we have no more electricity of any kind, and if that's the case, that would be the last of our problem.

Finally, I wouldn't underestimate the arrival, or the rise of status, of other forms of art that may give movies or painting a run for their money in the most relevant art form race. In the last twenty years, TV has stepped up its game considerably. Series like The Wire and Mad Men should arguably be shown at school. Also videogames are only a few decades old, who know what they will become for the future and more technology savvy generations.

David Cauchi said...

Keri: You seem to've read the opposite of what I wrote. What I think will be the art the exemplifies our society is not what I'd pick if I had any say in the matter. Similarly, the Sistine Chapel exemplifies 15th century Italy, and that I think it's overwrought and somewhat ridiculous is irrelevant.

Tacamoc: If someone's bid for posterity relies on the continuous supply of electricity for the next n-hundred years, then good luck to them, cos they'll need it.

Giovanni: Nice bringing of the topic back round to the subject of your post.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Another thing that has lost a lot of relevance in the last twenty years (at least in my mind) is the whole idea that we will lose some of these old masterpieces with time.

Au contraire, it's only now that we're becoming fully aware of it.
The preservation of film stock is
hugely problematic (we very nearly lost Taxi Driver, to name but one example), but the curators of film collections will tell you that the digital is much worse: churn of file formats, the degradation of the media, new encoding and decoding technologies... It's information that needs to be constantly backed-up and upgraded. Are we going to be able to keep doing for 300 hundred years untinterruptedly? After all it's not as if a DVD left in a cupboard for as little as 30 years is likely to be playable. (Let alone a Cd-Rom. Let alone a floppy disc. You see where I'm going with this.)

I'll get into that when I talk about the Cherchi-Usai book, I want to listen to his conference presentation again so long as the Film Archive has successfully preserved it.

stephen said...

What we'll remember in 500 years

Keri h said...

David Cauchi - I misconstrued you? My apologies. But your comments dont answer mine about the sheer random chanciness of what painting & literature et al, will survive.
Stuff with religious connotations & lots of adherents seems to last longest...
on the other hand - stephen - great to see Tthe Perry Bible Fellowship" referenced! I have "Almanack" - imagine this (or, worse, "Little Nemo in Slumberland" on a Kindle...but I'd hope they coninue through the centuries

word verification: logram - kin to the vegetable sheep

Paul said...

What will be remembered will depend on the tastes of the time. We enjoy the Impressionists but have no taste for the Salon painters who were the leading artists of that time. We like H G Wells and Jules Verne because they created Science Fiction, but have no interest in literary novelists like Ford Madox Ford. We are fascinated by the paintings of Johannes Vermeer, a minor artist in his time, while some of the acknowledged Dutch painters of that time (Cuyp, Hals) we ignore.

David Cauchi said...

Keri: Sorry for that. I was a bit scattershot.

I totally agree about randomness. You can only select from what has survived, and that is totally up to chance.

Five hundred years is not a lot of time, and look what we've lost since the 15th century, even a lot of things painted with the buon fresco. And it gets much worse the further back you go. There is very little painting surviving from Roman times. Books do much better (as do drawings on paper interestingly).

I did think though that you were a bit conservative with your Sistine Chapel lasting as long as Catholicism. I'd say it'll last a lot longer, just as the Pantheon in Rome and the Acropolis in Athens have long outlasted the demise of the classical pagan gods.

David Cauchi said...

Oh, and Paul, Piero della Francesca, whose paintings in the Vatican got painted over by Raphael cos people didn't value them, was neglected during the next 500 years of stagnation, until he was rediscovered in modern times. As Andre Lhote put it, 'We hail in Piero the first cubist.'

Paul said...

But Modernism would not have happened without the 500 years of what you call stagnation. Abstract painting is the result of its circumstances, a sophisticated aesthetic and artistic environment. Tracing a direct line between Piero della Francesca and Braque is both historicism and primitivism of the worse kind.

Paul said...

Worst, not worse. Worsted, not nylon.

rob said...

My dad and a friend were outside a Boston library in the 1940s, and spotted trucks being filled. They couldn't stop the process. But they were allowed on board, to sift feverishly through the discards for the duration of the journey.
What to chose? How much could one find? Dad was a devotee of Thoreau, and among other treasures, managed to -rescue? scavange? several first editions. He has them still. Spring, Winter, and one more.
I think of that journey as one of the heightened moments of his book-loving life. 40 minutes in a truck-load of books. Then scrambling out, shirt stuffed and mind racing, to try to hitch- and eventually walk- back to Cambridge, the books, carried in a makeshift shirt sling, getting heavier with every step.

Megan Clayton said...

Robin Hyde at Waiatarua
wished she had her Malory there. Inside was a specific illustration
of a scene that had stood,
a little earlier,
for something she didn't want to say.

This she wrote in '37.
It was published in '84,
one in a series of 'scripts and fragments.
I had a second-hand copy of that volume.
I think my mother may have found it for me.

By the turn of the century
I was a funded student of Hyde,
all passion but not too many ideas.
Michele Leggott suggested
I pay attention to
some of the things Hyde had read.
I wanted to find that Malory.

Editors and inventors had
come out of the long skirts of Tennyson,
to tell Malory-stories
again and again.
Rackham, Beardsley engraved and illustrated.
The story was compressed
for softer sensibilities.
This was before the Winchester manuscript,
before Vinaver. All adpatations
were out of Caxton.

Hyde had mentioned Rackham
as her illustrator.
I fed my inquiries through interloans.
They found me a copy
in the Invercargill Public Library,
a Great War-era abridgement.

The drawings were by Rackham, but
the illustration to which she clung
wasn't there.
That whole section of the narrative
wasn't there.
Hyde always was a beautiful mis-rememberer.

I cast a browsing arc
to proximate editions.
I sat in the narrow aisle
between the library shelves.
I looked through the donated volumes
in the library's possession.
I found the picture,
found the volume. W. Russell Flint
the illustrator's name.

There's not much that's concrete
in literary academia.
Books buckle under the weight of
the ideas heaped upon them. Originary objects are viewed under vitrines,
or touched through gloved hands.
Texts are visible through contexts,
which we cannot transfer.

Yet I had this book, and this evidence.
I saw the picture that she remembered.
She mislaid her copy before she went to the bush.
It was borrowed from a friend, who died.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Wow, that must have been quite an exciting moment! Highlights too how difficult it would be to replicate the kind of discovery if the image in question had been digital, therefore that much more difficult to (re)contextualise and date.

What a wondeful story, too, Rob, thanks so much for sharing that.

Something very strange happened at Victoria a few years ago: the head librarian decided that they should get rid of a whole lot of books, and that it was up to us, the lecturers and students, to mark the ones we wanted saved. I was reminded of it earlier last week when I picked up some books in the Italian section and the spines still sported the red stickers (which marked each book for possible withdrawal) and the felt pen marks across them (which indicated somebody wanted the book in question saved). With Italian they just proposed to get rid of everything, and we duly crossed all the stickers out, then nothing came of the whole thing anyway due to the general outrage. But it's sobering to walk in front of a library shelf in an institute of higher learning and be reminded of that one time when they wanted to get rid of all of Gramsci.

Di said...

Excellent post. I can't imagine using a kindle thing to read, I adore books.

David Cauchi said...

Ye gods Paul, it wasn't me who traced a direct line between Piero and the cubists. It was the cubists.

The kind of packaging of lived experience into artificial constructions artists do is completely different from that which historians do. Artists collapse space and time.

We are interested in the poetic truth, not the accountant's truth (to use Herzog's very useful distinction).

Paul said...

Artists talk bollocks. That is the Art Historian's truth.

David Cauchi said...

Paul, a quote from an artist:

'Those who do not understand will never understand, and those who understand because they have to understand have no need of me.'

Paul said...

I rest my case.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I was hoping you guys would keep exercising the respective cases until we broke the 50-comment barrier.

Paul said...

Just for you, then: this notion of some poetic truth which is superior to any form of mundane truth does not hold water. It is fine and dandy for a cubist artist to claim Piero della Francesca as his influence. But to deny more immediate influences, such as Cezanne, would be ahistorical.

Whilst on the subject of influence, I was at the Rita Angus show this weekend, where all questions of the her influences on her work are ignored. She is presented as if she invented her manner, guided only by a few books and magazines. The truth of her development as an artist is avoided because it would not fit the narrative which the exhibition promotes - that of a lonely and singular artist.