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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

So the Sibylline leaves were blown about

Sven Birkerts came to Columbia last Friday to discuss literary blogging with Jenny Davidson. The afternoon was billed as a debate: Is Literary Blogging the End of Literary Culture? I hope I don't kill the form--or the culture--with this long post. First I want to talk about eighteenth-century newspapers, which maybe only a few people care about, and then I want to talk about the greatest novel of the past ten years, Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai, so you can skip down past the poetry about newspapers to read if you're bored. Maybe blog posts can be orderly and planned for discussing how ideas work together. Or maybe not: the best laid plans...

Paul Barndt wrote a nice piece about the event for the Bwog, and I was glad that Ed Champion transcribed some of Birkerts' remarks because I kept thinking, "Marshall McLuhan said some of these things in 1962, right? I like galaxies better than elegies." About halfway through the event, Birkerts mentioned that he had been reading Eric Alterman's "Out of Print" from the New Yorker on the train down from Boston, and I thought then, "is that why he's conflating the decline of print newspapers with a general decline in reading? Aren't we talking about different things?" (Yesterday afternoon, I skimmed through Birkerts' Gutenberg Elegies and realized that I couldn't have attributed Birkerts' tone only to Alterman. The Gutenberg Elegies is an extended set of essay meditations published in 1994, with a new introduction from 2006, on the same issues of literary gatekeepers, distributed authority, and associational logic tied to the hyperlink which he discussed at Friday's event. I get the feeling that for Birkerts these terms don't get complicated by new developments so much as they get exacerbated.)

But the newspaper/novel decline narrative is an interesting conflation to make, especially when you look back at the history of print in the eighteenth century, a connection Jenny Davidson mentioned during the talk as a possible corrective to these worries about technological proliferation. I have a dream seminar in mind about the uses and abuses of the decline narrative in the eighteenth-century; we'd start with Paradise Lost, go on to the Ancients-Moderns debate, and then look at the transformation of the pastoral genre. During Birkerts' talk, I kept thinking about two long poems by George Crabbe which were Gutenberg Elegies of their own: "The Library" and "The Newspaper." "The Library" is a paean to the transformative power of books--not romances, not collections of plays, not magazines, not systems, but strong books which have the power to arouse sympathy and order thoughts. Such a remedy is needed in an age of decline, when everything is tinted by the color of elegy,
When the sad soul, by care and grief oppress'd,
Looks round the world, but looks in vain for rest;
When every object that appears in view
Partakes her gloom and seems dejected too;

For Crabbe the library is the place to look not only for the cure for this grief and gloom, but it also stores the causes of it in the multitude of inferior productions. (I know this is way too much poetry to quote on a blog, but I find the bad rhymes in the couplets hypnotic, like they really do produce ordered thinking for me, even as I'm chuckling at Crabbe's gall at finding a rhyme for "duodecimos"... OK, that's giggly thinking, not ordered thinking.):
The noblest road to happiness below;
Or men and manners prompt the easy page
To mark the flying follies of the age:
Whatever good ye boast, that good impart;
Inform the head and rectify the heart.
Lo, all in silence, all in order stand,
And mighty folios first, a lordly band ;
Then quartos their well-order'd ranks maintain,
And light octavos fill a spacious plain:
See yonder, ranged in more frequented rows,
A humbler band of duodecimos;
While undistinguish'd trifles swell the scene,
The last new play and fritter'd magazine.
Thus 'tis in life, where first the proud, the great,
In leagued assembly keep their cumbrous state;
Heavy and huge, they fill the world with dread,
Are much admired, and are but little read:
The commons next, a middle rank, are found;
Professions fruitful pour their offspring round;
Reasoners and wits are next their place allowed,
And last, of vulgar tribes a countless crowd.

"The Newspaper" is the companion to "The Library," in that the form gets blamed for destroying orderly thought with its random articles, disposability of daily or weekly publication, partisanship, scandal-mongering, and ill-considered criticism and puffing. It is the second long poem on the Project Gutenberg page, so you have to scroll down to find it. But you can take a look at the argument and the opening stanzas "The Village" and you'll recognize the voice of the poet who revels in nostalgia for a "Golden Age" (his term). I see some of Birkerts' concerns about the labor of composing well wrought prose in Crabbe's critique, as well as his fears about proliferation of lesser productions:
We, who for longer fame with labour strive,
Are pain'd to keep our sickly works alive;
Studious we toil, with patient care refine,
Nor let our love protect one languid line.
Severe ourselves, at last our works appear,
When, ah! we find our readers more severe;
For, after all our care and pains, how few
Acquire applause, or keep it if they do!
Not so these sheets, ordain'd to happier fate,
Praised through their day, and but that day their date;
Their careless authors only strive to join
As many words as make an even line;
As many lines as fill a row complete;
As many rows as furnish up a sheet:
From side to side, with ready types they run,
The measure's ended, and the work is done;
Oh, born with ease, how envied and how blest!
Your fate to-day and your to-morrow's rest,

Crabbe asks, where is the place for readers to enjoy the labor of reading and studying books when there is all this paper and instant gratification floating about:
To you all readers turn, and they can look
Pleased on a paper, who abhor a book;
Those who ne'er deign'd their Bible to peruse,
Would think it hard to be denied their News;
Sinners and saints, the wisest with the weak,
Here mingle tastes, and one amusement seek;
This, like the public inn, provides a treat,
Where each promiscuous guest sits down to eat;
And such this mental food, as we may call
Something to all men, and to some men all.

In these two poems, Crabbe blames newspapers for the decline of reading serious material. That the two would be conflated under a general elegiacal tone more than two hundred years later shows--what? The print newspaper business is in sharp decline for economic reasons that are difficult to address, but I'm really wary of connecting that problem with a general elegy for deep thinking or ordering thoughts on a printed page. Actually, I think it's really offensive to do that, and the economic issues would seem to fall by the wayside if you could make it into a decline of thinking problem.

Paul Collins and Leah Price have both responded to the NEA's annual report on reading decline narratives, and they both demonstrate the ways in which the decline narrative recurs by disguising itself as something that's diagnosing a particular moment (blogs, television, motor vehicles) but is really resurrecting an elegiacal tone which, as Crabbe put it, makes every object under study "seem dejected too."

My favorite passage of Crabbe's "The Newspaper" insists that newspapers provoke random thinking--associational thinking in Birkerts' terms--which don't approach truth or certainty. But what if this is the way print circulates in The Gutenberg Galaxy--the book, not just the idea itself, where McLuhan juxtaposes blocks of text from various disciplines just to see what happens when he makes mosaics of references:
So the Sibylline leaves were blown about,
Disjointed scraps of fate involved in doubt;
So idle dreams, the journals of the night,
Are right and wrong by turns, and mingle wrong with right.-

My point here: what if associational thinking isn't that bad? What if it's the way that lots of books--and not just blogs--are structured? McLuhan gets some amazing work out of that mosaic effect to create a field of media studies which takes up the associations which print makes possible.

You know who else works in that structure, too? Helen DeWitt. Talk about Sibylline leaves being blown about: there's DeWitt's main character in the novel, Sibylla, leaping up from her work transcribing esoteric journals onto a computer database to hunt down a reference in a book or explain a foreign phrase to her son Ludo. DeWitt quotes long passages from math and aerodynamics textbooks, film books about Akira Kurosawa, Icelandic sagas, and so on. The mosaic pattern looks less like ordered thinking than like a record of scattered thinking. Ludo wonders at one point if there's any other kind of reading and thinking after one has faced disappointment:
It wasn't all that easy to understand the book anyway, and with my father interrupting all the time it was practically impossible; what if he never stopped? What was it going to be like hearing it for 80 years? I thought of giving up and going home. Then I thought of Sibylla, jumping up and sitting down, jumping up to walk here and there, jumping up to read this book and that book a paragraph a sentence a word at a time.

At Friday's event, I asked Davidson and Birkerts if DeWitt's novel might provide an interesting lens onto the conversation about changes in meditating literatuer. I knew they both liked it quite a bit: I first read about The Last Samuari on Light Reading, and Birkerts' blurbs the back of the book, "[it] is very much the story of an education, an arduous discovery of self." DeWitt has a blog that's pretty cool, so she's perhaps an example of someone who's embraced multiple forms of writing technology. But The Last Samurai is itself a book about mediating forms of writing technology. The book was published in 2000, but I think it was written over a long span of time so there's little mention of late-twentieth century technological changes. Sibylla tries to make money by preserving old periodicals in a new digital format; in many ways, her project looks a lot like the Project Gutenberg texts I was using to retrieve and link to George Crabbe. (Indeed, the material may be just as esoteric.)

The missing link in Friday's conversation seemed to me to be about how cinema fits into our discussions of what technology has changed the ways we think about narrative, and I think DeWitt does something really amazing with that question. Whenever I'm enthusing about the book, I have to insist first that it's not related to the Tom Cruise movie and that Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai is the key to the book. If Sibylla can jump up from her work in the midst of transcribing sentences, she is reverential about watching the Kurosawa movie all the way through. At one point, she tells her son, "It is shocking to stop in the middle, she said, still at least Kurosawa will never know." So what's the difference between watching the movie all the way through and paging one's way through books, only to stop in mid-sentence to check a reference in another? I think DeWitt understands in a really beautiful way the multiple forms of making one's way through a text--that it's not all about ordering thoughts, but also about disordering them to show disconnections.

One of my favorite things about the book is DeWitt's thank-you to the designer who found a Greek character set for the book "at the postultimate minute." I can't even type out some of my favorite passages from the book because I don't know how to access the character sets for Icelandic, Japanese, and Greek. (Sometimes I try to imagine this project back to the eighteenth century, when colonialists from the East India Company made prototypes of Bengali type and Sanskrit type for use in the grammars of the languages. I like to think about how those new type forms changed consciousness among the English, but also how the authors maintained the same narratives of civilization happening in stages, where the move from print to oral was a major shift now being recorded in these half-understood grammars of proto-linguistics.)

But the moment that I most wanted to bring up to Davidson and Birkerts was the part where Ludo visits his birth father and tries to make a connection through talking about his love for books. Ludo, flailing for some connection to his birth father, asks him if he ever buries books:
You could bury your books in a plastic bag a few metres down, one on each continent. Then if there was a cataclysm they'd be preserved for posterity. They cold dig them up again. he said he hadn't tried it. I said: What they should really do is bury a book in the foundation of each house. Sealed in plastic. It would help archaeologists in a millennium or so.

I'm less sure that Ludo is speaking in an elegiacal way here--what if he's trying to make associational thinking work for him as it's worked for his acquisition of so much knowledge in the past. And it doesn't really work in this scene, to heart-breaking effect. The act of reading isn't always one which makes connections between humans, it can also exacerbate distance. Birkerts seemed to be working this idea to great elegiacal effect in his book, as though this was the thing that books were supposed to do. Because they've done it for him. And they do it for me, too, and for other people who love to talk and write about books and other forms of writing. But what if writing technologies don't have purposes except for the ones that are cast on them in other forms of writing and critique, when the author's (or blogger's) tone makes "every object that appears in view" subject to another use or interpretation?

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Anonymous Anonymous on Wed Apr 30, 05:27:00 PM:
Having had Sven Birkerts as a professor in college, I feel that I should have something useful to mention. All that's coming to me, however, is that he is the only professor I had who flatly refused to use email. I actually thought email would have been a pretty convenient way to communicate know...writing...
Blogger Becca on Fri May 02, 08:09:00 AM:
Excellent post. I believe Tedra Osell has made the connection between 18th c. periodicals and blogging, but not sure where.
Blogger Unknown on Sun May 04, 09:16:00 AM:
I must show that passage from "The Library" to my colleagues; perhaps they can use it to guide the next stacks shift they're planning. But ought not Crabbe's metaphor have noted that folios lie down -- well, they do in our library.

I think you're right to keep us focused on the recurrence of the "decline" narrative.
Blogger Ben on Wed Sep 17, 06:02:00 PM:
We got a bit of comment spam for this post:

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Pretty amazing to get spam for a post that's basically about 18th century forms of spam!