Wednesday, 24 October 2012

And Yet the Books

Philip Harvey
This is the fifth in a series of pieces about the book in poetry released at this blogspot.

Davis McCaughey once said, “As we become more technically competent, perhaps to deal with means, the threat to our coherence is in the definition of ends and how to get there. Librarians must constantly remind the rest of us that not all communication is of the same kind. What is appropriate for the commercial world may be utterly confusing for the humanities, to which the skill of librarianship fundamentally belongs.” His words were delivered to the Australian and New Zealand Theological Library Association in Melbourne in 2000 at a joint session of librarians, biblical scholars, and theologians. Given at a time when silicon first seemed a serious threat to wood pulp, McCaughey’s appeal to the book struck a note of warning not just about our need to value the printed book, but to value it in the face of technological change. Over ten years later, his words have not lost any of their prescient effect.

At the session Davis McCaughey read poems by T. S. Eliot and the Polish-American poet Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004), saying their words remind us that “what is at stake is humanity, or if you like, members of the human race, thinking, talking, writing in the presence of God, and on the way doing so in the presence of their fellow members of the human race. To be aware of this they need libraries.” Our understanding of the world as a finite place is constantly being challenged by the seemingly infinite publication of books, past, present, and future, that extend our imaginations outside the finite. Theological librarians, perhaps more than most, are brought into a regular awareness of the most important conversation we can have, the conversation about God. The Eliot poem was one of the choruses from ‘The Rock’. The Milosz poem was ‘And Yet the Books’:

And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,
That appeared once, still wet
As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,
And touched, coddled, began to live
In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
Tribes on the march, planets in motion.
“We are,” they said, even as their pages
were being torn out, or a buzzing flame
licked away their letters. So much more durable
than we are, whose frail warmth
cools down, with memory, disperses, perishes.
I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant,
Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley,
Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.

The opening words speak for the rest, in miniature, like a summary, as happens in some poems. “And yet the books …” They say that whatever happens in this life, there will be books on the shelf still, to recall what has passed and to recollect what was said. Milosz even calls books “separate beings”, i.e. separate from us in our lives and from the authors who wrote them. The books exist to tell us their story, which come to us as existences in their own right. Even the authors are separated from the books they create once the words are complete. They go out into the world with their own meanings and messages. “We are”, they assert, beings that deliver their own experience into the present of the reader.

When I read this poem I wonder about the connotations of the Polish word for ‘chestnuts’.  How unusual in a poem of such spare, forceful claims to find a beauteous analogy in which books are “still wet as shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn.”  While we picture old bound books in brown leather and admire their copious quantities, Milosz seems also to be connecting the trees themselves with books. This shouldn’t be a surprise. The word ‘book’ in English derives from the word for ‘beech’, linking it directly to the tree from which the paper products were made. (Theories even circulate that the letters of the alphabet in some cultures are a mnemonic for the sequence of the trees as they flower through the year.) I think the poet is reminding us of the book’s connection with the earth from whence it sprang, and of human relationship with the very wood of the physical books we read. The books themselves have come alive through nurture.

The boldest claim in the poem is that books are “so much more durable than we are.” Not only will books outlive their creators and readers, they will outlive all of us. There are those who say that everything is subject to mutability, animate and inanimate, but we know what Milosz is saying: the book will be read when we are no longer walking the Earth. This is a reason why people write books in the first place, some even think they bestow immortality. It is unquestionably a reason for libraries. This is especially so in theological libraries, where books are not discarded but remain there to be rediscovered, witnesses to the thoughts and revelations of those who have gone before.

Witness, in fact, is a theme of this poem. The catastrophe described in the centre of the poem is part of the experience of the poet, who grew up in Lithuania but lived through the Second World War in that aggrieved city, Warsaw. Virtually everything perished before his eyes. He became a Roman Catholic and lived the second half of his life mainly in the United States, escaping the cultural control of the Soviet Bloc. It is worth noting in the context of this poem that as well as writing poetry and essays, Milosz translated the Psalms into Polish. He himself is a witness, so it is explicable that he identifies this role also in the books that he sees on the shelves of libraries. Their survival is as much a matter of amazement as his own human survival, as worthy of respect and wonder. Life itself will always be deserving of wonder (“it’s still a strange pageant”) even if we will never make sense of it all, and we have the books. He even calls them “well born”, as though individual beings brought into the world with their own lives to lead.

The closing words place the poem in the realm of the Psalmist. They open new possibilities, arrest our desire for closure. Books for Milosz are “derived from people”, to be sure, but are also derived from “radiance” and “heights”. We can make many things of these two impressive words, standing there like towers or gates or roads at the end of the poem. For me, “radiance” is the light that fills us with insight and leads us toward truth; “heights” are those possibilities we can see and may go towards, even if we may never reach the mountains, or need to. They stand there too, I would suggest, for what Davis McCaughey means in his talk in 2000 by “the presence of God.”

Davis McCaughey’s address to ANZTLA (‘The library and theological studies: an indivisible marriage’) can be read in full in The ANZTLA Newsletter, No. 41, August 2000, pp. 21-24. ‘And Yet the Books’ is found in Czeslaw Milosz, ‘The Collected Poems 1931-1987’ (Penguin, 1988, p. 485).

Monday, 22 October 2012

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

Review by Philip Harvey

“All faiths insist that compassion is the test of true spirituality and that it brings us into relation with the transcendence we call God, Brahman, Nirvana, or Dao.” Thus Karen Armstrong sets the scene for this appeal and instruction on compassion. (Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, by Karen Armstrong, Bodley Head) She is quick to define compassion not as pity, as some would say, but as the reason and goal of the Golden Rule: Do not treat others as you would not like them to treat you, or in its positive form, Always treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself. Further, compassion is to be shown not just to your own group but to everybody, even your enemies.

This way is central in the ministry and teaching of Jesus but Armstrong, an historian of religion, locates its earliest promotion in Confucius. Really it means putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, empathising with another’s suffering. The Golden Rule asks us to look into our hearts and discover what gives us pain, then to refuse under any circumstances to inflict that pain on anybody else. The author presents the possibility of this principle being achieved by anyone, whatever their religious, philosophical or ethical tradition.

She is at the same time aware of humans’ ruthless selfishness, which she ascribes to the reptile part of our brain. As she writes, “wholly intent on personal survival, [humans] were motivated by mechanisms that neuroscientists have called the ‘Four Fs’: feeding, fighting, fleeing and – for want of a more basic word – reproduction.” These forces are there within us and it is well that we are self-aware. They are readily on display when we look around our world. She observes correctly that many people today would rather be right than compassionate.

But Armstrong insists that we are hard-wired for compassion as well as cruelty. She reminds us that humans are more radically dependent on love than any other species. Our brains have evolved to be caring and to care, such that a lack of care for an individual is thought an impairment. Armstrong even goes further, saying that in our divided world, full of hatred, disgust, greed and vengeance, compassion is in our interests. We are in a personal position to make a difference.

We are addicted to our egotism. The book sets out twelve steps to deal with this addiction, clearly modelled on the AA program, though in this case all of us are candidates for the course. Those brought up in Christian tradition will recognise the steps, though one of the beauties of the book is how Armstrong draws as well on the other religions for guidance. For example, to learn about compassion she draws on the Upanishad sages and Buddha in search of Enlightenment. We must learn to look into our own world, and ourselves. Compassion for others means compassion for ourselves: Love your neighbour as yourself.

Then, in order to find empathy we must use our imagination. She cites the Dalai Lama that we need to learn “the inability to bear the sight of another’s distress.” We must cultivate mindfulness. To open our awareness of how little we really know – even those of us who know nearly everything – she recommends the Socratic dialogue, the purpose of which is to get you to a place where you meet your ignorance and so start the real process of learning. Muhammad is used an an example of concern for everybody, for it is he who got the Arabs to find mutual respect, thus breaking down tribalism.

Knowledge dispels prejudice. One step asks us actively and at length to learn about a country or religion about which we know nothing. The crucial step of recognition of the other is told through the story of Abraham’s hospitality for the three strangers, who prove to be an appearance of God. She then considers another tough one, the challenge from Jesus to love our enemies. This act of compassion breaks the pattern of revenge, disarms the enemy, and undoes hatred, both theirs and ours.

Never at any time does Karen Armstrong say this is easy, but if we are committed to each of the steps we will become more compassionate and, no doubt, wiser individuals. In other words, the book is for everyone.

Her work in protecting religion from fundamentalism and modern ignorance is borne out in this book. She chooses a core teaching common to the religions and gives it to humanity. But this is not a naïve book about shared beliefs. It confronts us with the real work of learning compassion and of being compassionate which, to paraphrase Saint Paul, has to more than just a nice noise.

This review first appeared in The Melbourne Anglican

A Book of Blessings

Philip Harvey 
“It would be infinitely lonely to live in a world without blessing,” says John O’Donohue at the start of this large experiment in blessing God, ourselves, and the world. (Benedictus, a Book of Blessings, by John O’Donohue, Bantam, ISBN 9780593058626)  Indeed, he promotes the view that there are certain times when a blessing is nearer to us than any other person or place. Blessings are a “privileged intimacy.”

Although poetic in form, the blessings are prayers of recognition rather than poems. They generalise our common world without sentimentality, and invite us to specify our own experience. They acknowledge existence, making it both real and surprising. ‘In Praise of Air’, for example, describes air as the “benefactor of breath”, “vast neighbourhood of the invisible”, and “reservoir of the future out of which our days flow”; it concludes, “May our souls stay in rhythm with eternal breath.”

We may conventionally think of blessing as an act of start or conclusion, but O’Donohue takes this much further, treating blessings as lively words in the midst of change. Thus the book’s seven sequences: Beginnings, Desires, Thresholds, Homecomings, States of Heart, Callings and Beyond Endings. They speak of all ages of human life, showing that blessing is found not just in ecstasy and bliss, but more often than not in our daily routines, and in loss and desolation. His grounded understanding of self and world is heard in the request to "take time to celebrate the quiet miracles that seek no attention."

This is John O’Donohue’s last published book before his early death at the age of 52. "May your heart be speechless at the sight of the truth," he asks in 'For the Dying'. Out of his study of the ancient spirituality of his homeland Ireland and of the honorary Irishman Hegel, O'Donohue developed a philosophy of authentic personhood. One of his sayings is "the duty of privilege is absolute integrity," something we find at the basis of these blessings. He was a scholar, poet, philosopher, priest, spiritual leader and environmental activist, in recent years working to protect parts of the Burren in County Clare. He was a big, bearded, happy bear of a man who enjoyed great receptions everywhere, including Australia. He deserves a yet wider readership.  

Two of O’Donohue’s guiding principles are expressed in states of beatitude. In ‘For Absence’ we pray, “May the absences in your life grow full of eternal echo,” while ‘For Friendship’ asks “May you never be isolated but know the embrace of your Anam Cara.” Eternal echo is the rendering of an Irish phrase meaning personal true belonging and an anam cara is your soul friend or spiritual guide, both  rich teachings in Celtic spirituality, popularised by O’Donohue. He knows the need for blessing in a world of anxiety. "In our confusion, fear and uncertainty," he writes, "we call upon the invisible structures of original kindness to come to our assistance and open pathways of possibility by refreshing and activating in us our invisible potential."

Yet the book takes us further. The blessings enliven our thought and awareness of who or what we bless. Further, these blessings engender new blessings of our own, through association. Blessing inspires the practice of blessing. 'Benedictus' is a book of self-discovery as well as recognition of those around us, hence the American title for the book, 'To Bless the Space between Us'. It is a prayer-book, a source for liturgies, a genuine introduction to living Irish spirituality, and a way of making new.

This review first appeared in The Melbourne Anglican 

Tokens of Trust

Philip Harvey

Rowan Williams encourages us to read the creeds as means of living in trust with God and the church, including or even especially when all reasons for trust have vanished. He downplays a dogmatic reading in favour of one that inspires life and growth together. ‘I believe’ means for him ‘I have confidence; I take refuge; I have come home.’

The Archbishop knows how to speak to our personal understanding. In talking about God he spends little time on proofs, but gets us thinking about people in our own lives who embody God or live out God in their lives. Instead of the predictable ‘God takes responsibility for us,’ Williams makes us look at those who take responsibility for God, that is who make God credible in the world. Further, he is likely at any moment to say something like this to you: ‘Belief in a Creator of all things visible and invisible is … about the possibility of an integrated life.’

This book (Tokens of Trust : an Introduction to Christian Belief, by Rowan Williams, Canterbury Press, 2007) interprets the two main creeds of Christianity, but it is not about who had the numbers at Nicea. If you wonder how anything surprising, deep or original can still be said about the creeds, then this is the book for you. We read Rowan Williams for the surprises. Then for the depth of his teaching and the originality of his views. When we go looking for his purpose we find ourselves standing right in the middle of our own traditions. ‘Jesus says himself that people are cured by their trust in him; and when that trust isn’t there, he can’t do so much.’ Elsewhere he states, ‘Jesus builds on the whole pattern of establishing that God is to be trusted’. Interesting, with the present tensions in the Communion, is his forceful emphasis on trust.

How does Williams do it? His gift for drawing us into rewarding thought is achieved through a style that is by turns conversational and confronting, wry and risky, deeply spiritual and highly learned. This is well-illustrated by his many definitions of Church. He can start with a simple definition like ‘church is meant to be the place where Jesus is actively visible in the world’, and arrive in a short space at ‘We are holy because we stand in the holy place, where Jesus stands; we are rooted in heaven where the Son adores and gives himself in love to the Father.’ He challenges us with this: ‘When the church is most clearly committed to the work of transforming the earth, heaven becomes most clear.’ He would even add a fifth mark of the church in the creed, a Church ‘that is one, holy, catholic, apostolic, and repentant.’ We are invited into a world of greater possibilities.

Pictures by the Welsh artist David Jones augment the text. Layout and size are friendly. The author writes for the initiated, the uninitiated, those who live in the church and those uncomfortable with institutional religion of any kind. This is made clear in the following idea, a meditation and parable in one, found on page 76: ‘Only three human individuals are mentioned in the Creed, Jesus, Mary and Pontius Pilate: that is Jesus; the one who says “yes” to him; and the one who says “no’ to him. You could say that those three names map out the territory in which we all live.’

This review first appeared in The Melbourne Anglican

Language, Faith, and Fiction

Rowan Williams is well-known for his knowledge of all the forms of Anglican theology. Less known is his command of Russian Orthodox theology, of which this new book is a stunning example. (Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction. London, Continuum, 2008. ISBN 9781847064257) Williams makes Dostoevsky and his ideas "unmistakably contemporary." The reader certainly needs to have some experience of the writings, though Williams’ skilful recreations of characters, plots, and issues are good aides memoires, especially of the four big novels: Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Devils, and Brothers Karamazov
Fluent in Russian, his interpretations of crucial words in these texts are revelations in themselves.

Williams sets standards, saying that the central question posed by the various moral crises to which Dostoevsky was searching to respond is "What is it that human beings owe to each other?" The book identifies main ways in which the Russian master addresses the question.

One way is the need to confront suffering and evil. Dostoevky shows that to bring about evil "you do not have to have evil intentions. But the more the climate of untruthfulness comes to feel natural to people, the more evil results." He sees The Devil as out to stop the future. In Devils and Karamazov, people manipulate and control other people’s wills, seeking to deprive them of personal freedom and the chance for redemption. Another major theme is the learning of responsibility. Williams states that "love is the crucial instance of freedom … that is able to give sustained attention to the other and to hold open a door for change in them." The shape that love takes is the assuming of responsibility – owning one’s words and acts, and being answerable.

Williams is a warrior against received opinion. For example, he dismisses the cliché that Karamazov is about atheism versus belief. Dostoevsky is not interested – in general terms – about whether God exists. The novel narrates the changing positions of different people in their arguments about God. It describes "a conflict about policies and possibilities for a human life." This salutary position helps us see a typical Williams’ approach to debate. Us versus Them, say in the current public atheism disputes, is not a useful way forward; it closes off discussion. Polarisation is not helpful. He is making the point too, that the debate is nothing new. Dostoevsky is enacting via his characters the very challenges we see amongst those seriously engaged in debate today. Other moral issues – child abuse, sexual abuse, mass violence, terrorism, and unquestioned greed – that haunt our age, are central in Dostoevsky. Williams’ cunning achievement here is to reassemble an imaginative involvement with these issues that is at a remove, in time and culture, from our own. Williams highlights Dostoevky’s view that the disappearance of religious belief is not the triumph of reason, but the harbinger of reason’s collapse.

Rather than make a predictable riposte to a Dawkins or a Hitchens, he chooses Dostoevsky to broaden everyone’s understanding. 

That said, this is Williams at his complex best. It is neither a popular introduction to the subject, nor an abstruse gift to the academy. It will, in time, be seen as one of his main works. Within the wordy grammar there is a fund of extraordinary insight and erudition that ought to inspire readers to try more Williams, and more Dostoevsky. Consider this: "Dostoevsky wants us to choose that humanity will survive – not merely as a biological but as a cultural reality. And the culture he identifies as human is one in which we do not have to lie about what we are in relation to our environment." 

This book review by Philip Harvey was first published in The Melbourne Anglican.

Grace and Necessity

Since about 1950, theories of art have been blown wide open. Modernism has been disabled by arguments about the artist’s intent and the hidden power structures behind art works. Doubts about art’s purpose and worth have undermined artistic activity. Much of this nervousness over art’s relativization is labelled with the tiresome and opaque term, postmodernism. The diversity of media and themes now available overwhelms the individual participant.

Rowan Williams knows he steps into this debate at a crucial time. Unlike many, he invites debate rather than issuing manifestoes. This book (Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love, Continuum Morehouse, 2006) is an important, if sometimes complex, addition to his writing on human expression. Its attitude of educational reflection works in contrast to the fevered synergy of much of today’s art literature. It presents a sensitive theological reading and understanding of Christianity’s valuing of art.

The prime figure here is the French philosopher Jacques Maritain. Beauty sought for itself will always elude, or seduce the artist into falsity. Maritain says, ‘things are not only what they are.’ Our knowledge of ourselves and the world is brought to bear in our encounter with art. Expression is necessarily limited by knowledge and means. These limits can become strengths through the organisation of the work via symbol and manner. Humans have a participatory awareness of the creation that resonates with the patterns of God’s action in the created world.

Williams then looks at two very different artists, both Roman Catholics, influenced by Maritain. The first is the Welsh painter and poet David Jones. Jones is in the business of sign-making. Recognition of the union of material being and meaningful imagination serves to make us understand the nature of sacramental action. This action is the supreme illumination of what and who we are and art fails to understand itself without sacramental reference. Art and sacrament: the results include Jones’s essential long poems about the First World War (In Parenthesis) and the work of the Mass (The Anathemata).

The other artist, nowadays possibly the best-known of the trio, is Flannery O’Connor, a novelist of the Deep South. For her, the artist is not on about moral messages or edifying spectacles. The mystery of sacrifice and atonement means the artist must be ready to take on any subject, even the worst of sins. ‘The supernatural is an embarrassment today even to many of the churches’, she believed, so ‘you have to make your vision apparent by shock.’ Williams makes clear how her fiction shows human activity that represents our participation in God’s action by embodying gratuity and excess. No moral lessons.

A plethora of ideas on religion and art fill this book; it is worth the exercise just for that. Williams’s conclusions are a test all of their own, a proof that this is not some reactionary tract but an open forum that pushes the argument ahead of the times. He argues for the necessity of the work of art, that it is the artist’s vision expressed, of necessity. This is not about romantic self-expression or the artist as hero. How grace can be shown through this act of necessity is critical. Williams asserts that a Christian vision of creation will be surprising and shocking, however it is manifested, and that it will evolve through a love that is dedicated to the work in its entirety.

Some of Rowan Williams’s writing is caught in the bind between conversing with a specialist audience and communicating to a general audience. He wants to reach both, but in this book the density sometimes wins out over simplicity. The arguments are clear, but I am sometimes better informed by his crisp aphorisms, for example ‘You have to find what you must obey, artistically,’ ‘Excess of symbolism becomes the habitual climate of thought,’ and ‘The artist imagines a world that is both new and secretly inscribed in all that is already seen.’

That said, this is a great book for anyone who takes seriously the objectives of art, and of the relation of the artist to God in the creative act. Where is the artist in creation? How is the artist to give back through her creation? Propaganda and aesthetics are not enough. Williams is concerned with the artist’s obedience, her sense of an imperative. Take these away and what is left is the artist’s will.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Design Files

In a recent interview in The Design Files, an Australian online design blog, photographer Bill Henson is asked “Can you list for us a few favourite resources across any media (i.e. specific books, journals, magazines, websites or other media) you tune in to regularly or which inspire you creatively?” Here is Henson’s reply:

“I’m very interested in unpopular culture. So what I tend to read are books which have been out of print for years. So I would nominate as one of my favourite resources second hand bookshops. I think second hand bookshops are the most interesting bookshops anywhere in the world now, whether you’re in New York or London, Paris or Melbourne or Sydney. They’re interesting because they’re almost starting to accidentally fulfil the role that libraries used to play. Whereas libraries now are being emasculated – anything that hasn’t been borrowed for more than two years is taken out, which is an appalling state of affairs and will sadly keep libraries entirely superficial and fashion prone in future. But second hand bookshops are filled up to the rafters with all this stuff which is not necessarily in vogue, so they’re a real treasure trove. Second hand music shops that sell vinyl and CDs I find really interesting  too. I like to be able to browse physically in shops – record shops and bookshops. It’s a totally different thing to browsing online – because you really don’t know what’s going to catch your eye, whereas online the path people use really does involve a line of thought beforehand, so the truly unexpected doesn’t occur in the same way as it does in a physical shop.”

Bill Henson is having little more than a chat, but let’s put aside for the moment discussion of the difference between interview and chat. Maybe they are, after all, the same thing. Henson’s comments on bookshops and libraries require responses. Far from being distinctive views on these subjects, they express unfortunately very common superficial ideas about literature provision in our own day.

Regarding bookshops, all Bill Henson is doing here is reporting on what thousands and thousands of people do every week, and have since the time of Samuel Johnson, never mind the internet. Browsing in second hand bookshops is no big secret. He is not alone in finding pleasure in doing so, or in reading out of print books. True readers of literature lost and found relate to Henson's positivity immediately. But to say that second hand bookshops are more interesting than any other bookshops is a careless slight. To make a distinction between say The Hill of Content Bookshop in Melbourne, or The Avenue Bookshop nearby here in Albert Park with secondhand bookshops in Chapel Street Prahran, say, in terms of ‘interest’ is a bland distinction. The Hill of Content &c. are massively interesting shops, stocked with the best publications of our times. Henson is doing those shops and civilised book production a disservice by inference, running them down. There are mega-stores run for profit that have become barns of paper, true, but good bookshops flourish in Melbourne alongside and despite the internet and the glut sellers. People have not stopped buying from good bookshops, buying the books incredibly inside the shop itself. They are living proof that the e-book and the internet have not fulfilled the urban myth of making print books redundant.

His judgements on libraries are borne of fairly random contact, one would conclude.  If Henson was really up to date with libraries he would be taking more time to visit libraries like this Carmelite Library here in Middle Park, with their extensive standing collections of books going back centuries. No one here is interested in being restricted to the 21st-century. ‘Standing collection’ means no book is ever removed from the shelf, except for a very good reason known only to the librarian. Special libraries are where it's at. Melbourne is full of libraries that contain remarkable collections, they are one of the city’s big secrets. They contain hundreds of extraordinary books from all periods that neither Bill Henson nor any other genuine fossicker will ever find in a second hand bookshop. Henson is right about one thing though, the turnover of books in the public library system is a scandal. Can I emphasise that he is talking about public libraries only in his chat? In some public systems today books are removed if they have not been borrowed after twelve months (not two years). Some public libraries put up sales but most send their new books, old after only a year, to the tip. This is a waste of taxpayers' money that should be front page news. The culled books are not even sent where they truly belong, Bill Henson's beloved second hand bookshops. A reason for this situation is that the public libraries have felt the pressure to go technological for decades now, which is why funds for books have diminished. Public libraries have the appearance of chat rooms with books attached. I tend to relate to Henson on this score. Because public library collections have become streamlined ("superficial and fashion prone", is how Henson puts it), with terminals and robots arrayed all over the place, they no longer possess the same sense of adventure and discovery. We no longer expect surprises when we go into a public library, not even in one of my favourite sections, Dewey 770 Photography.

The full transcript of Bill Henson’s meeting with The Design Files can be found here:

Monday, 15 October 2012

El Guardian de Los Libros

This is the fourth in a series of pieces about the book in poetry released at this blogspot.

Philip Harvey

Libraries have always been places for the disabled. Any honest history of a library includes not only founders with visions, benefactors with collections, librarians managing in all kinds of weather, and users whose own works would not exist but for the library, it includes the day-to-day reality of its users. The users’ needs make a library a living place. This will include those whose physical, mental, developmental, or learning disabilities have made them the natural friend of the safe, unthreatening environment of a library.

Furthermore, librarians themselves often bring their disabilities into the workplace. One of the most outstanding examples is the blind poet Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) who at one time was, astoundingly or not, the Director of the National Library of Argentina. Libraries and books are prominent subjects in his writing, as for example in the poem ‘El Guardian de los Libros’, set in a historical moment in time that as the poem proceeds we come to gauge is 14th century China.

Classical achievement is expressed in classical form. We are told “Here they stand: / gardens and temples and the reason for temples,” though as the list continues we are looking at more than earthwork constructions. “Exact music and exact words; / the sixty-four hexagrams” of the I-Ching, such things as “the conduct of that emperor / whose perfect rule was reflected in the world,” are included, but then even “the secret and eternal laws; / the harmony of the world.” And where do all of these things stand? “These things or their memory are here in books / that I watch over in my tower.”

So far, so classical. The library as repository of centuries of civilised achievement is a commonplace. We all know this about libraries, even if it is helpful at times to be reminded. It is always fascinating to study a rundown of the internal holdings of a library, it makes it sound all rather marvellous. Until we meet in the middle verse of this poem the actual conditions inherited by the narrator, a world where the Mongols have caused havoc and barbarous destruction, sweeping from north through the region and so further south. It is only after this devastation that “In the faltering dawn /my father’s father saved the books.”

Rather than a classical ode to learning, we find ourselves in the middle of a short story. Rather than being conveyed to a place of action in a remote past and romantic place, we become uncomfortably aware that Borges may be talking about his own time. As someone who acted against fascism in his homeland and spoke out against totalitarianism elsewhere, the poem takes on a personal and contemporary meaning. This is someone who knows what total war and ignorance can do to our chances of survival, our connection with a past to which we are heirs. While the poem owes much to Constantine Cavafy and to the English translations from the Chinese of Arthur Waley and Ezra Pound, Borges’s prime motive is not simply to replicate their work, or even to write an ersatz copycat poem from the Yuan or Ming Dynasties, but to use this model as means to a particular message.

It is the blind poet Borges who opens the last stanza, “In my eyes there are no days. The shelves / stand very high, beyond the reach of my years.” We glimpse the poet himself, ever so briefly, surrounded by the thousands of books he cannot read. But then comes the real surprise:

Why go on deluding myself?
The truth is that I never learned to read,
but it comforts me to think
that what’s imaginary and what’s past are the same
to a man whose life is nearly over,
who looks out from his tower on what once was city
and now turns back to wilderness.
Who can keep me from dreaming that there was a time
when I deciphered wisdom
and lettered characters with a careful hand?

This man is not a librarian, not a scholar, not even a reader, but as the title says 'El Guardian de los Libros', i.e. ‘The Keeper of Books’. He knows only that he must revere his patrimony, both human and cultural. For him and his compatriots, “we know nothing of the Son of Heaven / or of the Empire’s fate.” The books themselves stand “at the same time near and far, / secret and visible, like the stars.”

So what do we make of this twist of events? What do we say about someone who protects hundreds of books that he cannot even read? Has someone explained to him the contents of these books, for how else could he describe them in the first stanza? For me, the poem has several meanings.

First, it is a poem about disability and, even more than that, powerlessness. The books contain everything ‘imaginary’ that he can ever expect to pass on to the future. He has seen that the actual mess of the past is all it is, but that books can recreate the past and we may come to understand. It is not all forgotten. All he can do is be the guardian of something he himself cannot read or interpret. Paradoxically, an illiterate is left responsible for the vast scale of surviving literature.

Second, the poem reminds us of the physical presence of books, and libraries more especially, and how these things connect us with ages and people who have been separated from us not just by time but war and disaster. Change turns the world of immediate expression into the strange afterwords that are books, the ‘memory’ contained in books.

But third, the poem is concerned with how a book’s existence is a gift to the future. Who knows what word or hexagram or ceremony or rule read by those who come after Hsiang will not help revive the civil relationships between individuals and societies? The books will explain the Chinese to themselves, even the Mongols to the Mongols. The secret is that such insight will not happen if the books are lost.

And the poem is, fourth, a statement of personal belief in the book. Librarians handle hundreds of books every month, the majority of which they will never read themselves. The belief persists that selection and preservation are responsibilities developed by a librarian to honour the past, but especially the present and the future. The blind librarian-poet Borges carefully depicts a person whose sole task is to keep vigilance. He says in his poem that, despite setbacks and absurdities, boredom and barbarity, he knows that vigilance and protection of the patrimony are themselves unstated purposes of the librarian’s vocation.

Here now is the translation in full and my apologies for not presenting the original Spanish. Bibliographical details are listed below.

The Keeper of the Books

Here they stand: gardens and temples and the reason for temples;
exact music and exact words;
the sixty-four hexagrams;
ceremonies, which are the only wisdom
that the Firmament accords to men;
the conduct of that emperor
whose perfect rule was reflected in the world, which mirrored him,
so that rivers held their banks
and fields gave up their fruit;
the wounded unicorn that’s glimpsed again, marking an era’s close;
the secret and eternal laws;
the harmony of the world.
These things or their memory are here in books
that I watch over in my tower.

On small shaggy horses,
the Mongols swept down from the North
destroying the armies
ordered by the Son of Heaven to punish their desecrations.
They cut throats and sent up pyramids of fire,
slaughtering the wicked and the just,
slaughtering the slave chained to his master’s door,
using the women and casting them off.
And on to the South they rode,
innocent as animals of prey,
cruel as knives.
In the faltering dawn
my father’s father saved the books.
Here they are in this tower where I lie
calling back days that belonged to others,
distant days, the days of the past.

In my eyes there are no days. The shelves
stand very high, beyond the reach of my years,
and leagues of dust and sleep surround the tower.
Why go on deluding myself?
The truth is that I never learned to read,
but it comforts me to think
that what’s imaginary and what’s past are the same
to a man whose life is nearly over,
who looks out from his tower on what once was city
and now turns back to wilderness.
Who can keep me from dreaming that there was a time
when I deciphered wisdom
and lettered characters with a careful hand?
My name is Hsiang. I am the keeper of the books –
these books which are perhaps the last,
for we know nothing of the Son of Heaven
or of the Empire’s fate.
Here on these high shelves they stand,
at the same time near and far,
secret and visible, like the stars.
Here they stand – gardens, temples.

‘El Guardian de los Libros’, translated from the Spanish of Jorge Luis Borges by Norman Thomas di Giovanni and published in ‘In Praise of Darkness’ (Allen Lane, 1975)

Monday, 8 October 2012

Riddle 26 in The Exeter Book

This is the third in a series of pieces about the book in poetry released at this blogspot.

Philip Harvey

The modern English poet Craig Raine opens his most famous poem ‘A Martian Sends a Postcard Home’ (1979):

Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings
and some are treasured for their markings –

they cause the eyes to melt
or the body to shriek without pain.

I have never seen one fly, but
sometimes they perch on the hand.

These flighty imagist verses continue on, describing common objects of Earth as seen for the first time through the eyes of a visitor. Clues in these three verses lead us to conclude that the Martian is looking at books. Raine, who could be thought of as a postmodernist, is practising the art of word pictures, using language to guess at something without naming it directly. The main clue is Caxtons, named after William Caxton, the first man to introduce the printing press into England. In fact, this form of poetry is one of the oldest in English literature. The riddle or, as they are sometimes called by academics, enigmatica is a developed form in Anglo-Saxon poetry, the most important collection of riddles being The Exeter Book. We do not have the names of any of these poets, though there is no reason to doubt that some may have cunningly hidden their names in the text..

Riddle 26 in that Book, written in indeterminate Saxon, has often been translated. Here is Richard Hamer’s version (1970):

Some enemy deprived me of my life
And took away my worldly strength, then wet me,
Dipped me in water, took me out again,
Set me in sunshine, where I quickly lost
The hairs I had. Later the knife’s hard edge
Cut me with all impurities ground off.
Then fingers folded me; the bird’s fine raiment
Traced often over me with useful drops
Across my brown domain, swallowed the tree-dye
Mixed up with water, stepped on me again
Leaving dark tracks. The hero clothed me then
With boards to guard me, stretched hide over me,
Decked me with gold; and thus the splendid work
Of smiths, with wire bound round, embellished me.
Now my red dye and all my decorations,
My gorgeous trappings far and wide proclaim
The Lord of Hosts, not grief for foolish sins.
If sons of men will make good use of me,
By that they shall be sounder, more victorious,
Their hearts more bold, their minds more full of joy,
Their spirits wiser; they shall have more friends,
Dear ones and kinsmen, truer and more good,
More kind and faithful, who will add more glory
And happiness by favours, who will lay
Upon them kindnesses and benefits,
And clasp them fast in the embrace of love.
Say who I am, useful to men. My name
Is famous, good to men, and also sacred.

‘Say who I am, useful to men,’ the poem asks, turning our attention back on all that has come before. The first person narrative leads us to guess various things, as each line speaks in conundrums. However we are given a big lead with ‘My gorgeous trappings far and wide proclaim / The Lord of Hosts, not grief for foolish sins.’ Furthermore, the conclusion states emphatically that ‘My name / Is famous, good to men, and also sacred.’ An object that is both famous and proclaims the Lord of Hosts narrows the possibilities considerably. That this is most probably a book, and that no ordinary book but the Bible, becomes clear by our knowledge of pre-Caxton book production. A book like the Bible, or a Gospel Book of the period, was made from vellum, i.e. mammal skin that had been washed, cleaned, stretched, shaved and bleached. The first-person narrator is the sacrificed animal whose pelt ultimately provides the pages, the ‘brown domain’ upon which the drops of ink are traced by the quill, “the bird’s fine raiment”. The physicality of the natural world and human action upon nature are noticed in every line of this Anglo-Saxon riddle. Medieval book manufacture is a time-consuming, arduous, and expert business, at every stage of the process. The poet’s care over each stage of this bookmaking is admiring and affirmative.

Two important figures from Anglo-Saxon literature are at work in this translation of the riddle. Feonda, here rendered as enemy, and the hero, operate in this poem not as forces in battle or contest, but as facilitators, as it were, of the book itself. While an ‘enemy’ or ‘fiend’ deprives the animal of its life, the ‘hero’ (so-called) transforms the resulting pathological materials into something remarkable, something that will bring honour, victory, joy and good life to those who use it. The hero is also the protector of the book who “clothed me then / With boards to guard me,” and he does this on behalf of the kinsmen, i.e. everyone in his own society. This is a world in which recognition is given for courageous actions; it is a standard subject in this verse tradition. But it is also a world in which kindness and faithfulness have become extolled as primary virtues, due in serious measure to the contents of the object being praised, and I would suggest that this is something new. Saxon fighting values are acknowledged but subsumed under the new Christian virtues adopted by Saxon society.

Indeed, the second half of the riddle speaks exclusively of the resounding value of the Bible as ultimate good, rather than the simple heroic achievements of the Saxon warrior. Just as the book is clasped in gold, so its message leads to an end in which the embrace of love is the final result of all this work. The conclusion is praise for the true benefit of all the hero’s labours, the Bible itself. It rewards especially the increased wisdom, happiness, and communal good inspired by the of words of the Bible. This makes it a very different riddle poem from Craig Raine’s, for as well as being a word game of charming effects, Riddle 26 is also a poem of testimony to the Testaments, an economical work of praise for the Word and thanksgiving for its transmission using the elemental technology of its day. One may conclude that the poem even has a certain didactic purpose in influencing its listeners to honour and respect the canon of Scripture itself.

And here is the poem in the original, with alliterations, caesurae, and all. You are welcome to add your own readings of these words in the Comments Box.

Riddle 26

Mec feonda sum         feore besnyþede,
woruldstrenga binom,         wætte siþþan,
dyfde on wætre,         dyde eft þonan,
sette on sunnan,         þær ic swiþe beleas
herum þam þe ic hæfde.         Heard mec siþþan
snað seaxses ecg,         sindrum begrunden;
fingras feoldan,         ond mec fugles wyn
geond speddropum         spyrede geneahhe,
ofer brunne brerd,         beamtelge swealg,
streames dæle,         stop eft on mec,
siþade sweartlast.         Mec siþþan wrah
hæleð hleobordum,         hyde beþenede,
gierede mec mid golde;         forþon me gliwedon
wrætlic weorc smiþa,         wire bifongen.
Nu þa gereno         ond se reada telg
ond þa wuldorgesteald         wide mære
dryhtfolca helm,         nales dol wite.
Gif min bearn wera         brucan willað,
hy beoð þy gesundran         ond þy sigefæstran,
heortum þy hwætran         ond þy hygebliþran,
ferþe þy frodran,         habbaþ freonda þy ma,
swæsra ond gesibbra,         soþra ond godra,
tilra ond getreowra,         þa hyra tyr ond ead
estum ycað         ond hy arstafum
lissum bilecgað         ond hi lufan fæþmum
fæste clyppað.         Frige hwæt ic hatte,
niþum to nytte.         Nama min is mære,
hæleþum gifre         ond halig sylf.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

How to Find Everything

Introductory remarks to students at the Postgraduate Advanced Training Session conducted at the Carmelite Library in conjunction with the Franciscan Conference held in Melbourne, Australia in November 2009. Some text is updated to reflect new developments.

Philip Harvey

A prerequisite piece of information useful to a new researcher is that libraries are where the fun is. The fun is in the libraries and I cannot emphasise enough to you how you should be making yourself familiar with every library that could possibly serve your research needs. Now when I say that, I don’t mean just simply joining the library of your university or history school or theology school. I mean, you become actively aware of all the available libraries, archives, and other places that could possibly have material in your subject. This includes state libraries, public libraries, special subject libraries, archives. The Carmelite Library, for example, is a theology library specialising in spirituality, but this means it has a special interest in medieval history, monasticism, the religious orders and in the different spiritual traditions of Christianity.  It makes sense, likewise, that where medieval and early modern religion and spirituality are being taught in a university faculty, that university library will have specialised literature. We like to believe that such libraries are keeping up with the expectations of their teachers and students.

I wish to state a general assumption that is an unstated expectation of the researcher: the researcher knows everything about their subject, if not now then by the end of their thesis work. The question is, where are you going to find everything?

Actually, the first person you need is yourself. It is not often said in reference research seminars that the knowledge you start with initially, and your desire to increase and deepen that understanding, are critical foundations for the success of your research. Interests and assumptions pre-exist inside the researcher, there to be built on, tested, changed and even, sometimes, changed utterly. You need to believe in the subject, you even need to love your thesis as s subject of passionate interest.

The second person who helps you on your way to knowing everything is your supervisor. They ought to be supplying you with the essential reading in the subject, bibliographies and other sources, as well as setting out a methodology. If supply is meagre, then guidance about where to get supply is a requirement. The supervisor is there to support and direct, they deserve respect and must be listened to. It is important to remember that where you are going, they have been before. Read everything they advise you to read, learn how to find the essential literature. Supervisors can vary in their methods. One may tell you to write down everything you know before you start the reading, as you can then update your thesis while proceeding. Another may tell you to read everything first before you put pen to paper, or keystroke to screen. Whatever, a productive relationship with your supervisor will necessarily mean following a sensible methodology, discussing how the work is being constructed, how to manage the breakthroughs as well as the blockages. However I have something scandalous to say about supervisors: they don’t know everything. Their task is to help you to find everything on your subject. A good supervisor helps you to find the confidence and wherewithal to move into unknown places – to know how to read, work with, and interpret materials that are new, challenging, different, strange. Indeed, if the subject has a life then new findings and new directions are going to be part of the game.

Other people in your work may be living authorities on the subject, experts in some area of the subject, those whose personal knowledge is invaluable, as for example those you engage in oral history or interviews. They may even, good luck, be the subject.

One of the main people you rely on is the librarian. Libraries and archives are the closest you are going to get to everything, not least if they have internet access. Libraries are the instruments of the systematic organisation of knowledge, which puts them at the advantage of the internet, which is not systematic or well-organised. You, the researcher, should become adept at using the catalogue. Effective results are not achieved by simply using keyword searches: if you are only using keyword searches on catalogues in the way you search Google, then you are not finding all the books, journals, and other materials of relevance in the library. You need to acquaint yourself in particular with subject searching, which displays records in systematic order. When searching any library catalogue you ought not to be satisfied until you have exhausted every possibility and uncovered every source that can contribute to your idea of everything. If you cannot find what you want or the catalogue seems obstinate to rational discourse, then ask a librarian for assistance. Humans can prove much more agreeable than machines. The beauty of the online catalogue is that comprehensive searching of a library’s holdings can be done at home, or other ideal location, though there is greatest benefit still in being in the place where all the material is close to hand.

Now, before I go any further, I am going to tell you what you should do when starting out on your research. You read a recent book on research for all the things you need to know: current practice, methodologies, resources. Your supervisor or research institute or school may also have their own guidelines, standards, and similar publications. Awareness of style is crucial, best known about before rather than after. You should become aware of any software that assists with layout, bibliography, and so forth.

You ask the librarian for fundamental and basic books in your subject, appropriate periodicals and reference works. You should consult about how to use electronic and online indexes and other resources, available in your library, either free or by subscription. You should consult about secondary works, including new titles. This is where cultivating a working relationship with your librarian can be an advantage. After all, not only does a good librarian know where everything is in the collection, they are also ordering the books, which means they see the trade catalogues first and can identify anything new just coming out in your area. Librarians are trained up to make the connections between student needs and all the possible resources.

There is one warning about such a working relationship though: the librarian is not there to write your thesis for you. Their job is to guide you in the directions you need to go. It is you who make the discoveries. And what are the ways to discovery?

You need to become greedy for bibliographies. Many of the best lists of resources are in the backs of books, ends of chapters, in footnotes and indexes. Older books will contain lists of books and articles not always found in new books or online, so you read all the bibliographies for everything. Then you have to consider this statistic: the extent of human knowledge doubles every six years. Actually, I don’t know how you can prove that, but even as a gauge this statistic tells us that our thesis searching will never end and that we have to be on the lookout at all stages of the process. Even within the special subject of your study it may have more than doubled in six years, but do you know that?

Not only are the obvious books going to contain material relevant to your research, so are the not obvious ones. This means taking a tour of the library and seeing everything in all sections. Reference, for example, is a section of any library of which a researcher should have quite a knowledge. Library awareness means studying the books on your subject found on the shelf, but also studying the books along the same shelf as those books, and in that vicinity. General texts and specific texts on the subject will come to light that you didn’t know existed and that were not noticed on the catalogue. Serendipity is an easy art, and beneficial at any time. You need to be aware of the forces that mitigate against serendipity, the most recent one in libraries being off-site storage. Call number searches on the catalogue in and around your main texts are one way of finding the unexpected treasure off-site but, short of researchers having their own access to off-site storage, or stacks, librarians must live with massive requests of titles that, when delivered, may or may not be the hidden wonders of our desire.

You need to know that if you cannot obtain the book or article in your own library, you can get it by inter-library loan, or as some have it, document delivery. There are various modes of inter-library loan which take too long to explain here. The important thing is to confirm that your library does inter-library loan, to know the cost of the transaction (if any), and the turnaround time.

The comfort with which we agree to the internet is in equal relation to the comfort of the chair we sit in while on the internet. Librarians and academic institutions have too often been complicit in privileging the comfy chair. Here are some uncomfortable things to make you sit up and think. First is the shocking true fact that the world wide web does not hold everything and never will. Not only that, what it holds today say in your specialist subject may disappear tomorrow – and where are you then? You are left with a web citation that your examiner cannot see and you cannot prove, something that could never happen with a book or article. The internet is a huge reference service, but its authority control is incomplete and much of the time does not provide the comprehensiveness that it seems to promise. It is no longer even free to all, or equitable, if for example we consider how access to some periodicals online is only possible today if you or your library pays the right annual amount to the database provider.

That said, the internet is also one of your best friends. It can provide the snapshot in short time, whether a sweeping vista or a picturesque dead end street, of work in your subject area.

You also need to become greedy for library catalogues. National and State Library catalogues should be main ports of call, bookmarked. In Australia we have the National Library of Australia’s database (these days called Trove, but watch out for name changes, usually every seven years on average). While it now gives access to nearly everything in the Library, one of its claims is to give extensive library holdings for individual records. However, you will be mistaken if you think the national database is the final word on the book you are looking for. When the internet opened up the possibility of downloading catalogue records from anywhere in the world, many university libraries stopped using the national database or placing their holdings there. Thus, your book could be held in the local university library or elsewhere but not on the national database, which means it pays to visit individual catalogues. Only last week, for example, I catalogued an important and not rare book in the Carmelite Library that is the only copy in an Australian library. Not for the first time, either. This book still has an interim record on the national database in Canberra, with the statement that no library in Australia holds this title. The record is still waiting to be described by a library that contributes to the national database.

You want to become good friends also with union catalogues both in paper and online; with periodical indexes and union lists of periodicals; with digital thesis programs, especially in your own subject area; with subject websites including those of associations, individual writers and academics; with portals to groups of catalogues; with library association sites that list libraries in your area; with global catalogues; with international societies and their specialised print and online products; and with the scholarly mechanisms that make online searching easier and more effective. You will not make friends with all these just by your own efforts. You need introductions, and the people best placed to make the introductions are your supervisor and the librarians. Everything is that much closer to realisation. A wise researcher knows at the end of their work that they now know everything in their subject, almost.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Book City

This is the second in a series of pieces about the book in poetry released at this blogspot.

Philip Harvey

There are times in our life of reading where the book seems more than the squarish paper object that presents the information. Times when the book, through the transformative process of intent reading, becomes something other, something strange or new or mysterious or intensely desirable, simply through its effect on imagination. Times when awake world and dream world merge in the process of reading the book, so that where we were before and where we might be afterwards have been suspended by the experience of reading. Such is the effect being elucidated (if that is the word) in the wondrous poem ‘Book City’ by the Czech poet Vitezslav Nezval. Without the book we could not enter into the other world that the book evokes.

Then also, the very existence of books is a reality of our world. Books confront us with their presence. Books are objects of desire. Books meet us with their own beauty, their own possibilities and demands. Their very existence tests our self-awareness, our psychology, our own thoughts and actions. They can arouse us, inspire us, amaze us. They can stand as silent judges. Books are physical entities in the same way everything in our world of animal, mineral, and vegetable is physical entity. We may see the book in terms of those entities, and vice versa. Books are touched, smelt, listened to, and looked at, just as they are read; we even talk of ‘devouring’ a book, so taste is there too. A book may become very close to us, as close as our feelings about the city wherein we live our lives. Prague is that city for Vitezslav Nezval, and all these physical effects of the book are promulgated in his poem ‘Book City’. There seem to be no boundaries.

The city and the book are juxtaposed. In so doing the poet proposes their inherent symbiotic relationship. How shall we understand the existence of one without the other? Each is explanatory of the other. Yet there is a third person, the poet, involved here too; it is a love poem. We can see that the poem is two poems, two attempts to say the same thing in different ways. In the first poem a series of analogies describe the beloved, the book city that is also the city within its books, while the second poem describes both the beloved’s pursuit of the reader, i.e. the poet, and the beloved’s surrender to the reader. Evocative words about the object of love in the first poem are followed by the short story of the relationship, in the second. So here is the poem ‘Book City’ by Vitezslav Nezval (1936):


There are mysterious cities and books bound in leather
Like naked women in forests
Like mulatto women with silver tattoos
Like water nymphs on subterranean paths
Like encounters between the eyes of wild pansies and men
Like preserved red currant in the beak of a storm
Like periwinkle valleys with the song of shepherds
Like flakes of snow and wild geese
Like anger of the womb
Like the touch of the fingers of night and burdock
I love them and forever seek them as I seek you, Prague in your libraries exposed to the rain


There are days when the book city pursues me
I’d like to describe it
It’s book bound in green leather
Like naked women in forests
A book that’s a nocturnal moth
Or a book that’s a lake
It surrenders to my hands
Like a centifolia rose
It phosphoresces in the night
Like Prague under the full moon

Peter Demetz in his masterful history ‘Prague in Black and Gold’ (1997) describes the reign of the extraordinary Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia during the later Renaissance, and how “The legend of ‘magic Prague’, prepared by English, German, and American writers on their grand tours in the nineteenth century, richly cultivated by Czech and German writers of the fin de siecle, and later renewed first by French surrealists and then by Czech dissidents under neo-Stalinist rule, largely rests on diffuse clichés about Rudolf’s life and his court.” This is what is happening here. Nezval’s poetry runs riot with the sense of ‘magic Prague’, a place of natural and alchemical transformations, of strange visions from the past that seem infused in the present. Religion and the occult mix together, with the sense that new and wondrous discoveries will happen, happily and inevitably. ‘Magic Prague’ is also a place of books. It exists because of books and books are its origin and continuation. The two go together: the city and the book are interchangeable.

Although reference works define Nezval as a Czech surrealist, a more useful clue to his motives is expressed in the purposes of Poetism, the movement he helped instigate in Prague in the 1920s, “a movement which aimed to combine life with art.” Nezval was an original with forms who happened to encounter surrealism during its formative poetic phase, but it was only one of the means to his poetic ends. While the book is “like periwinkle valleys with the song of shepherds”, an exotic image we would expect a French surrealist poet to project onto Bohemia, this and the other book images in the poem are the poet’s own personal landscapes, his array of mysteries that only manifest themselves because of Prague, his own library of special histories of this unique city. He is poet first, surrealist by an accident of time. One of the real wonders of Nezval’s poetry too, it must be observed, is how the work of this man of his time, a Czech Communist, survived the clampdowns on art judged to have “bourgeois tendencies”.

Only a Czech speaker can appreciate all the word play and sound effects of the original ‘Book City’. The rest of us stare at this poem, wondering at the simple first level of meaning in the translation. As I say, the city and the book are juxtaposed in the poem, the poet proposes their inherent symbiotic relationship. The ‘silver tattoos’ remind us of Bohemia’s historical reliance on its silver mines. ‘Flakes of snow and wild geese’ speak of Prague’s central landlocked place in Europe. When the book ‘phosphoresces in the night’ we are reminded of the alchemical and scientific experiments simultaneously encouraged in the reign of Rudolf II. Elements of Prague memory rise from the unconscious, reminders that may or may not be Nezval’s intention, but that nevertheless have a life of their own. The book itself is a rose, an object of mystery and also the gift given, entire unto itself, more than enough. 

The version here of ‘Book City’ by Vitezslav Nezval (1900-1958) is Ewald Osers’ translation, published by Bloodaxe Books in 2009. It comes from his celebrated collection ‘Prague with Fingers of Rain’(1936).