Thursday, 28 February 2013

Poetry for the Soul with Les Murray --- THE ONLY WHOLE THINKING

Philip Harvey

Les Murray reading at the Carmelite Centre on Wednesday night

Les Murray took the plane from Sydney on Wednesday, arriving in a very humid Melbourne where rain and thunderstorms would take over the afternoon. Les was here as a guest of the Carmelite Centre, where he was scheduled to give two sessions as part of our series ‘Poetry for the Soul’. The title of these sessions was ‘The Only Whole Thinking’, taken from his poem ‘Poetry and Religion’:

Religions are poems. They concert
Our daylight and dreaming mind, our
Emotions, instinct, breath and native gesture
Into the only whole thinking: poetry.

The first session was conducted to a large and receptive audience in the O’Connor-Pilkington Rooms of the old Carmelite Hall in Richardson Street, Middle Park. Les Murray read and talked about his poetry, his performance built around awareness of the sacred and the many different ways of getting words to say the sacred. Amongst poets he praised in this regard was Judith Wright, who according to Les has some poems that go straight through to an expression of the sacred, something that is actually a great test, very hard almost impossible to do well. In passing he also mentioned Lesbia Harford, saying that people are only now starting to see that she is one of Australia’s greatest poets.

Les had prepared a paper on the subject of religion and poetry. The eye told us that this paper had been written in longhand on a single side of A4, but the ears reported that what he actually said went very much longer than that, leading one to conclude that most of the paper was in his head. One hopes that Les will find time to write out all the things in his head that he actually said to us at Middle Park on Wednesday night. One way or another I guess this will happen in due course. It might be in an essay, or come out as poems.

Les Murray reading his prepared paper

On Thursday morning the 28th of February Les arrived back at the Carmelite Library early for breakfast of a bacon and egg roll and real coffee. At 8.30 cameras, cords, microphones and other paraphernalia had been set up by documentary maker Peter Thomas for a short film interview with Les Murray for Eureka Street. As Poetry Editor of Eureka Street it was my task to devise questions to spur Les into verbal action. Here is the running order of questions:

General Questions
1.      There are many answers to this question, so just a few please: Where does poetry come from?
2.      Where is poetry going?
3.      Poetry makes things happen, but what?
4.      What advice would you give a teenage poet today?
On the Work
5.      Generalisations are a feature through your poetry, i.e. mini-summations that build the conversation, but they seem to me to be a way of ticking off conclusions as you go along. Would you say a lot of your work leaves conclusions open, that things are going to be kept provisional?
6.      The drive to praise overwhelms all other considerations in your work (e.g. satire, polemic, politics, history). Could you talk a little about praise.
7.      The way words do what they say, i.e. imitate, repeat, reflect the subject-object-verb of their own meanings is something constantly on show in your poetry. Could you say some things on the vitality of English and your methods of getting that into the writing?
8.      If we accept that all of a poet’s Work is autobiography, where does the divide occur between the personal revelation and the public utterance? Is every poet moving somewhere between the two at all times?
Other Questions
9.      Is there anything that isn’t sacred?
10.  What is the future of the English language?

A first take with me asking the questions in conversational mode did not satisfy us, so after some rumination and further sips of his real coffee, Les said he would do it again straight by working from the printed questions. As he put it jocularly, “This is interview by Piece of Paper.” The film ran smoothly and will air online at Eureka Street in coming weeks.

Les Murray and Philip Harvey in the Carmelite Library

The second session of Poetry for the Soul was inspired by a creative suggestion from Les himself when he visited the Library last December. Why not have a Morning Tea where people come along with a favourite poem? They can read the poem aloud and then we can all talk about it. This is the kind of pastime that Les enjoys, and he is not alone in that way. So a comfortable number of interested individuals arrived at 10 o’clock, most with a poem to read. Some had only heard about the session on the grapevine or at the last moment, so did not have a poem to read. But here is the list of those who did:

Laura Hallsworth read her own poem, ‘Lady of the Night’.
Bronwyn Evans read her poem ‘Night Wash’.
Barbara Zimmerman read a quote of Peter Steele’s from his interview with Clive James on ABC Radio.
Carol O’Connor read ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ by W.B. Yeats, and later in the session ‘Pied Beauty’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Donna Ward read ‘The Journey of the Magi’ by T.S. Eliot.
Pádraig Ó Tuama, visiting from Ireland, read the second version of Patrick Kavanagh’s poem. entitled ‘In Memory of My Mother’, which is his favourite Kavanagh poem, then later recited his own poem ‘Dominic and Jenny’s Sex Life’.
Michelle Trebilcock read the poem ‘Wisdom’ by the Benedictine spiritual writer Sebastian Moore.
Marion Ryan, also of Ireland, recalled from memory the opening lines of Francis Ledwidge’s poem ‘Lament for Thomas MacDonagh’.
Janice Withers read her own poem called ‘Emperor’s Fate in the Hands of the Lepidopterist’.
I would have read Vincent Buckley’s ‘Triads’ or something dramatic like ‘Louisa Stewart is Foaling’, but in the end went for lightness instead: ‘What the Taxi Driver Said’.
Les Murray then read some of his new poems, typewritten on A4 in a big old-fashioned springback folder. When asked, he said he types all of his poems and doesn’t use a computer. When asked are ribbons freely available he said yeah, but you have to find them online. And how does he do that without a computer? He gets someone who knows about computers to do it for him.

Throughout the session there was a lively exchange of responses to the different poems, with Les being sensitive and enquiring of those who offered original poems. The two poems that temporarily silenced him into happy and knowing acceptance were those by Yeats and Hopkins. After the Hopkins he said, “It’s a beauty, isn’t it? Hopkins was the first poet I read at school that got me in. People would say he’s the first of the moderns, but that’s not right, he’s not a modern, it’s just poetry. When you hear it, you know, time frames are immaterial. It’s for real.”

The session could have gone on for hours, but a lunch appointment called and after formalities were over Les was back in Donna Ward’s car and off again. By mid-afternoon Les Murray was back in the air, flying to Sydney or Newcastle, and a return to the domestic round.

 Les Murray and Donna Ward in the Carmelite Library

 Images by Peter Thomas. Taxi service courtesy of Donna Ward.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Reading Silently

Philip Harvey
This cutting fell from a recent book donation to the Library. I found the tiny rectangle of paper on the floor after sorting, so its bookish whereabouts of the past twenty years could not be traced. The scrupulous academic recorded, in biro, that the letter is from The Times Literary Supplement, February 1991. Like you, I silently read this little note, wondering what to make of it.

The Ambrose story fills a space in our knowledge of Reading. Simply because it is there so palpably in Augustine it has become one of those before-and-after moments. It is serious evidence about Reading practice in the ancient world. Much has been written about Augustine's account.

Anyone in our world finds it nigh impossible to believe that Ambrose's behaviour was exceptional. Did no one skulk off to their enclosed garden to read the latest Cicero in rapt silence? Was all reading done aloud of long manuscripts? It seems incredible in a world of absorbed commuter train carriages, august hushed libraries, and a little bedtime reading.

The story reveals more about what we don't know than what we do know about Antiquity. Although Augustine reveres his teacher, and uses the story to bolster his glowing pen portrait of Ambrose, it seems that it is only later readers of the Confessions who have concluded that this is the first recorded instance of anyone doing such a thing as reading silently.  

Vocalised reading was a norm of ancient societies, to judge by how often we receive reports. Even Jesus of Nazareth reads aloud in the synagogue, because that is what a scroll is for. Recital of the written word was common, and if you were fortunate you had a slave to do that for you.

When pundits say that Ambrose invented silent reading, all we have to go on is the fact that he was one important person who undoubtedly had skills in that area. It seems to me that this is an example of where a single outstanding piece of evidence has taken on mythic meaning for later generations.

We also have to ponder the value placed increasingly on keeping silence at this time. The introduction of monastic ideals like solitude and silence were finding their way across the Empire. To sit silently at Scripture would have been a developing exercise. One has to consider that Augustine is describing a man found at lectio divina, in a state of silent contemplation of the words.

Meanwhile, everywhere today we read silently at our screens everything from tweet to note to report to article. If we are literate, that is.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Civilised Dialogue about Atheism : the Preferred Option

Philip Harvey 
The public atheist debate of recent years is a necessary expression of individual beliefs in our free, open society.  Books, articles, blogs, and posts are easy to find that lay out any and every atheist opinion, there seems no end to it. Certain one-liners come back with clockwork regularity. Certain of the secular ‘saints’ of atheism are quoted as though they were not only the last word on the subject, but the only word. The names Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins are the most common, not Karl Marx or Voltaire, reflecting the nowness of the internetting dispute. . For those who treat ultimate subjects like God with the seriousness they deserve however, the debate has had some most disappointing and unfortunate aspects.

Many of these atheists are concerned less with God than with religion, which seems to be the real target of their displeasure. Serious discussion about God or Not God is not common and few contributors seem bent on going through the various Proofs of traditional Philosophy of Religion. It is religion, it often appears, that is the actual object of hostility. Dismissive jokes, spectacular sarcasm, and sweeping rejections are just some of the devices employed by online atheists. Or perhaps they are not atheists, but a vast subset of anti-religionists. We read that some of them even attend conferences where they can continue this form of one-way discourse, which must be entertaining for them, if no-one else.

The net result of all this activity seems to be more heat than light. A typical human response to hostility is to withdraw and not engage further. A typical human response to being ridiculed is either to mount defensive counter-measures, to laugh it off as pathetic ignorance, or again to stop engaging with people who can only be rude and are fixed in their positions. Fundamentalist in their attitudes, sometimes. This is probably why the atheist debate appears so one-sided, because one side cannot be bothered engaging. But the God Side, as it were, has also been coming out with some heavy duty demolition jobs on atheist positions recently. All of this is unedifying really for those who take the subject seriously; there are many people (atheists and non-atheists alike) who expect more, who in fact demand more. What these people want is intelligent and informed dialogue.

Which is why this book is a welcome addition to the debate. ‘Beloved Father, Beloved Son :  a Conversation about Faith between a Bishop and his Atheist Son’ (Mosaic Press, 2013, ISBN 978-174324-019-9) is a dialogue, a careful charting of knowledge and experience that came about when Jonathan Rutherford, youngest son of Anglican Bishop Graeme Rutherford, found he had lost his faith. The results are a fascinating to and fro, where each man talks with respect and thoughtfulness to the other, bringing out their treasures of learning and achieved ideas, but also acknowledging what they don’t know and how much more there is to learn. No puerile putdowns here, no attempts to assert fundamentalist finalities. Both know that deeply valued positions are being put to the test, both have long experience inside rather than outside the living practice of Christianity. The Rutherfords thus demonstrate how much more is achieved through dialogue, however hard at times, than through standoffs and odd angry shots.

It was a typical challenging moment during Bishop Graeme Rutherford’s Easter sermon. After preaching on the text and the matter of faith, he introduced the fact that he himself was having to think about faith after his youngest son had declared that he was now an atheist and had sent Graeme an 86 page letter outlining his positions. The congregation at St Peter’s Eastern Hill, ever attentive to surprises and main arguments in a sermon, did its best to absorb the latest news from inside the Rutherford family. Although some may say you shouldn’t bring your family troubles into a sermon, this was the sort of direct living-in-the-moment kind of revelation that people expect when listening to Bishop Graeme. One parishioner was heard to say after the service, oh dear who would have children, while others wondered what would come next.

We didn’t have to wait long. Those studying the Trinity College Diploma in Theology at St Peter’s were soon hearing Bishop Graeme’s responses to Jonathan’s many arguments for an atheist worldview. These were always appropriate to the subject of the class, and it was as though we were in on some creative exploration of differing views. The class itself became the testing ground for new ideas as we were drawn in to the discussion. It only slowly dawned on us that this was more than an intensive  Socratic dialogue, it was the groundwork for the book now under review. One was struck by the fact that Graeme did not deny what was happening or try to hide the “awful truth” of an atheist in the family from the congregation. Quite the opposite, it seemed typical of him to choose to engage in discussion, to meet the newfound challenge head on, to go the extra mile. The rewards for everyone, Jonathan and Graeme included, are in ‘Beloved Father, Beloved Son’.

In the introduction Graeme Rutherford is described as “intense and introspective,” which is true, though we also find him here humourous, discursive, interested and always listening. His son has a similar temperament, indeed one of the characteristics of the dialogue is the similarity of their personalities and conversation, despite the patent differences over such essential matters as God. Both are men of ideas, as they concede themselves, people who won’t settle for throwaway answers. The older man draws on a lifetime of incredible credible knowledge; the younger man is starting out, in a way, caught up in the excitement and challenge of new directions. But in no way is one simply trying to trump the other. Arguments are set up and put out there with forthrightness, but also care. Any conclusions are never conclusive, but places where each individual has arrived for now.

Chapters are dedicated to several of the familiar atheist disputes: God’s existence, how the universe began, suffering and evil, Scripture, the Resurrection, morality, the spiritual life, and the search for meaning. Other areas could have been entered, but I think it is important that the arguments are not more extensive and keep within the frame of their personal interaction. I think this is because Jonathan is being accommodated, it is his views that are being given focus. There is case and rejoinder on both sides, but the focus is kept beautifully on the polemic, with the apologetic as a counterpoint, even at times a harmony. Graeme could say considerably more than he does, but the dialogue is built upon what he is saying directly to Jonathan and in response to him. As some of us know from his sermons and classes, if we let Bishop Graeme say everything he could say we would be here until Christmas. All of this results in a book that goes against the fractious norm that we witness in the current public debate. This is because Graeme and Jonathan are respectful. They show that civilised debate is better than uncivilised namecalling, that dialogue is better than just making noises or broadcasting your own views to the exclusion or ridicule or rejection of the other. I will address just three subjects in the book where this comes alive for the reader.

One subject that illuminated each personality was the discussion about the Resurrection, where Jonathan has come to adopt a very hardline Humean position and is unhappy with the accounts in the New Testament. Graeme maintains an open mind about both the event itself and its meaning to humans ever since. He is impressed by Richard Bauckham’s recent work on eyewitness testimony, but also sees the Resurrection as not only plausible but liveable. Both men know that evidence is crucial, only how they understand and interpret that evidence differs.

Perhaps one of the most revealing chapters is on biblical authority, if we are looking at the evolution of their thinking. Jonathan forwards the post-modern atheist view that the Bible is completely a human construct, full of outdated myths and beliefs, and rife with internal contradictions. He also wants to see the whole Bible as just One Big Thumping Book. It becomes apparent that his disillusion with the Bible is based in part on his exposure to modern biblical criticism that addresses the inconsistencies and borrowings of the texts. His old certainty about undisputed revelation has been upturned. Graeme meanwhile is not perturbed at all by the structure and variations of the different books, having moved beyond the strict attitude that the Bible is unquestioned authority. For him, the Bible is to be interpreted, there to teach and guide and one of the ways of making this happen is by an appreciation of the genres of the books. Another is via the practice of lectio divina, where engagement with the words is about our own lived experience, as individuals and together. We seem to be seeing parallel lives here, each with their own relationship to Scripture.

But it is in Jonathan’s presentation of his central philosophy of the Simple Life that we find them in close accord. Clearly Jonathan has learned much from his Christian upbringing about the value of simplicity. At the personal level he wants to live a simpler existence, free of the trappings and greed of consumer society, and he also sees simplicity as a solution to the major problems facing our world, such as poverty, ecological crisis, conflict, and social breakdown. Graeme commends this outlook and is quick to see it as Franciscan in spirit. For him, as for his son, belief and conduct on this matter must be in line with attitude. Their agreement on a holistic spirituality that is about ‘right heartedness’ is, for me and probably other readers, the real conclusion of the book. For even though they say that the discussion must go on, and that they have to keep each other honest, it is the moment of common recognition amidst all of this difference that makes one see they are being fair dinkum. People can disagree, but even better is when they can agree about where it is they agree.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Arcimboldo -- The Librarian: Meditation

Philip Harvey

He stares into the past that made him. We are all doing this, increasingly as we grow older. We have to find a way to explain how we got here. Our experience slowly informs us that there was a time before our own experience, to which we also belong. He stares from 1562 at a lifetime of transformations. Water can be turned into wine but clay still cannot be turned into gold. Not everything pleases him, it can never be all pleasure, yet he knows he belongs to discovery and its consequent treasures. He is full of this discovery, it has made him, we could almost say. He stares across the Atlantic Ocean to what nature does that is different and equally abundant. Within him he contains that information, though he calls it Legend and Report and Assay and Proclamation and Statute. Certainly, nothing in his own constitution would be quite the same without discovery, or its companions, conquest and exploitation. From 1562 the past is a tumult that he would rather keep under wraps. Why, only in living memory England has closed its monasteries and Germany has freely set up its own church and friends of his remember their grandparents talk about the end of the East at Byzantium. The Emperor here in Prague is restless for knowledge too, permitting into his orbit every kind of theorist and experimenter, as if he were the centre of the universe. It is not altogether with a clear equanimity or composure that the Librarian knows these tumults are related to books. That it was books in increasing numbers that enhanced discovery of the differences in people’s minds. He keeps himself together, he doesn’t fall in a heap, has at least these things to keep him going. But authority has come at a cost. His identity must resolve contradictions between one page and the next, or at least live with those contradictions. 1562 stares at the past as at a dream of lost glories. The ruins of the ancients keep him on his mettle. For even though manuscripts are old hat and the scroll could belong in one of the Emperor’s cabinets of catchy curiosities, he must not become conceited. It would be dangerous to presume that you know it all; people like that often finish up being thrown out the window, especially in Prague, where it is a more effective solution than exile.

He belongs in the present and can do no other. We are all doing this, possibilities reach out to impossibility. Probability thrashes it out with improbability. His masters want to emulate the ancients, why the Emperor himself would be the King of May. It is a topsy-turvy world, for sure. The green mantle over his left shoulder is that of a Habsburg prince. He though is not a prince but a philosopher, grinding out the slow meal for a new recipe of life. The mantle is stylish, it sends the message. But like the rest of him, it belongs in the present where rust and moth destroy, where princes give with one hand and take with the other. He would copy the prince, he also values his status. In 1562, that can amount to an impressive library. Books made him and he is made of books. Splendid things every week come to his attention. How solid is the present. Or should that be a question? How solid is the present? Carefully bound books seem a sure assertion of his place. Those papers that are his fingers write the laws we belong with. It’s all impressive enough, but is there not something stiff in the manner? Is he too straight-up-and-down to be believable? And will we ever know what he really thinks? Is he, for all his show of knowledge, a closed book? Outside in the streets of Prague the market is orderly racket, a walkway of vivid bartering, somewhere for animals to huff and toy stars to explode. The Vltava is rowdy with geese and trading boats. Whereas in here the silence is closed in. And anyway it’s never like this the rest of the time. Only now has he collected himself together sufficiently to stand a chance with posterity. Most times he’s all over the place, Philosophy at the window over there, History where it happens beyond the stairs, Law when something very wrong happens, only how wrong? His Science side is waiting for updates, his Theology looks tight but will it stand the next test? Why, his whole being could collapse into the proverbial, or turn into a pile of tomes for re-shelving. So for the moment he keeps a straight face, combines an aura of knowledge with a figure resolute with a little brief authority.  

He stares into the future, that will be totally unfair to all his achievements. We are the future, for example, who do not know what he really wants to achieve and cannot imagine what a Librarian in 1562 might possibly be up to, and will not care a fig. Just as we care not a fig for the Emperor looking like a green grocer’s window, though we find him curious enough. In his coat of many covers, the Librarian projects the certainties of 1562. Rumours of war, signs in the heavens, the brilliant carnivale of the court – these seem at times just a side product of the certainty of these books. They are the very latest technology, their beings inside and out a testament to the greatness of the new. Some of us gaze in wonder, some of us check the price tags. His future is something we know more about than he can guess, but who are we only hindsighters? By the time it is agreed that the Earth goes around the sun and the sun is a minor star and let’s turn the page, he will have been taken from his imperious place in the palace, heaved across the frozen Baltic Sea, and stacked up in Swedish obscurity. He, who entertained to a nicety the courtiers and boffins of the sparkling age, will rest quietly as an outdated encyclopaedia, if that, for the occasional attention of humourless rationalists. The snow will fall outside. 1562 will be 1625 will be 1652 and so forth. He will be like a joke that has gone flat with time and is not even funny anymore, a joke that another age enjoyed till it split its sides. His future is to be defined by the cut of his cloth. His books are the limit of what was known, not the limitlessness he felt he embodied. And yet the future will not be blind to his existence. It will ponder him as a conundrum, a quirk of humanism, the necessary manager of new thoughts. Even his outfit may come back into fashion, or sprout leaves to reveal the true nature of his calling. The future will try to make a context in which to understand, even if context disappeared or ‘disapapered’ (as the Irish Portmanteau, himself a montage, would say) under Thirty Years of unloving unneighbourly War. The future will try to rewrite the Librarian and in the process make up a new Librarian who is one more collation of collective thoughts. The future flew in the body of a huge metal bird all the way to the fishing town of Stockholm, just to walk down the gilt passageway where the Librarian waits, ready for the latest reference question, ready to show you what he has in store.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Everything is on Google, not.

Philip Harvey
We goggle at Google, we garble what we google, we gobble Google and go. A lead article in The Guardian reports on the latest expansions of the mega-company, leaving us to wonder if Google is the gentle giant of our waking beliefs, or really a ravenous monster, ready to upend our preconceived notions of free knowledge.

Although I first read the article online, it is the print version in the berliner-style Guardian Weekly for 1st February 2013 that I used to scribble my red biro underlinings and questions about basic assumptions of the present state of affairs.

The writer Tim Adams opens with a fair doozy: he describes Google as “the omnipotent engine.” Remember that this is good British journalism, where a dash of irony is likely to be somewhere in the dish, but Adams is also caught up in the buoyant enthusiasm of those for whom the internet is the answer to our every question and the challenge to our creative drives. Adams is not alone in liking to think that Google is more or less omnipotent, or has the potential to be. The fact that it neither is nor can be does not weaken this enthusiasm, it only increases it. That there are inherent dangers in being omnipotent is something else that is glided over.

Such is the zizziness of the zeitgeist, Adams soon says, “…it is almost inconceivable to imagine how we might have gone about finding the answer to some of these questions only 15 years ago without it – a visit to the library? To a doctor? To a shrink?” While Google delivers in real time (itself a computer term) it sounds almost pedestrian to reply that not only are questions still being answered by librarians, but that libraries remain the only place where many of the questions are going to be answered with any kind of thoroughness. Behind Adams’ wonderings lies a question in turn: is Everything on Google? Even though it is not, the tenor of the article would imply that it does have Everything. Well, no actually. But while librarians and others will comment that I state the obvious here, the assumption that everything is on Google goes on being generally unquestioned by many of its million of users. And therein lies the ghastly gorblimey Google issue.

Tim Adams introduces us to the head of Google Search in California, Amit Singhal. He and his colleagues are developing Knowledge Graph. If your view is that “searching is ever more intimately related to thinking” then it doesn’t take long to see that the web itself could possibly provide not just the data, but the answers themselves. Tim Berners-Lee called this “the semantic web” and Singhal & Co. work towards making “the computer understand the context of what was being asked.” Knowledge Graph is a California Dreaming, a mouse chasing its  tail, but its creators seem to ignore the simple fact that searching has always been intimately related to thinking. Humans will go on searching, even if Google went glop tomorrow.  I don’t say this to be unfair to the utopian possibilities of computer technology, but to remind ourselves that online is simply another way of finding what we need to know. Knowledge Graph may be a structure that can “mimic the way we think”, but that doesn’t mean it thinks the way we do. And when we consider the chances of it doing so, the artificial apparitions of Mary Shelley and Karel Capek loom in our imaginations.

There are curious side effects to visionary enthusiasm of this kind too. To be truly human, Google will have to start getting some of the answers wrong. Another assumption behind collecting Everything, which seems to be Google’s glorious goal, is that there is often more than one correct answer, the answer you have may be the wrong one, or it may be misleading or incomplete. Often it is the human mind, not a computer, that discerns which from which.

The Google people have yet to put a definite upper limit on their expectation of Everything. Librarians learn over a lifetime that information changes and knowledge expands. The very existence of new books is evidence that we will never achieve the optimum Everything. But Google is trying awfully hard with the devices at its disposal. Turnover in Reference is a fact of life.

Tim Adams himself is rightly inspired by Amit Singhal’s enthusiasm, still he cannot complete a Guardian article without some tough closing questions. “But what about the less measurable ways that the ease of search has changed our lives?” he asks. “What about the ways in which it has diminished the excitement of serendipity, the way that it has made the personal experience of a chance encounter with knowledge so much rarer?”  

Once more we find that the human mind of Singhal has thought of that. He seems to want Knowledge Graph to be able to provide serendipity and chance encounter as well, though it must be observed that this is serendipity on Google’s terms.

Is Search in Google’s sense the same as Reference in a librarians’ sense?  When I ponder this difference I hear in my mind a kind of Eliotian conundrum. I know I will be staring at this conundrum tomorrow and next week and next year. Between the random miasma of Google Search and the equally fallible systematic focus of Reference falls the shadow.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Without Pomp or Ceremony : the Burial of King Richard III

 Underneath the Carpark in Leicester

Philip Harvey
Glorious summer here in Australia as we read all the news and views of the Week of Richard the Third. The broadsheets publish images of the footless and backbent skeleton. The general public is brought up to speed on such facts as the Battle of Bosworth Field (1485) and the (this is always eye-catching) “upstart” Tudor family. Readers of Hilary Mantel would wonder how a Tudor could be thought upstart, but just consider how many upstarts people her pages, all willing to insinuate themselves into favour with the Tudor monarch. Oxbridge tweeters ask if this has anything to do with history, thereby admitting by implication that they have been gazumped by the University of Leicester. For indeed it is Leicester’s Week too, no doubt. Once we accept that yes these are the mortal remains of Richard III, we are faced with a large number of historical questions, and no doubt more will occur as time proceeds.

Inhabitants of the Carmelite Library turn their attention to questions that are not of pressing concern to the media. A place dedicated to the history of religious orders will want to know why the Franciscans of Leicester were given the duty of burying the body? And why was it done in haste, without “pomp and ceremony”? The Library holds no less than six books for which the main subject is Richard III. In none of these excellent academic titles does an index list either ‘Franciscans’ or ‘Grey Friars’. This in itself could be thought a serious omission, when in the past couple of days the archaeologists and historians in Leicester have been in no doubt that people in every age knew that Richard III was buried near the high altar of the community church of the Grey Friars, otherwise known as Franciscan Friars Minor.

After Richard was killed in battle his body was humiliated by blows and left on display for some days: it was then given over to the Friars. The speed with which the place of interment was created tells us that it had to be a quick job. To bury the body in a community church meant that few visitors would be around, even if the Grey Friars took in guests on occasion. The choir chancel of the church was protected, a sacred space, not open to the abuses of the public. Could it have been that he was buried there in secrecy? We only have to observe the burial at sea of Osama Bin Laden to know that the American Government had to hide the evidence and also avoid a burial place that could become a martyr’s grave. The job of shifting the mortal remains of Richard III was done with minimum fuss and as little attention-making as possible.

In English Christian society in the fifteenth century it was a duty of religious and the church to bury the dead. This was one of the fundamental human requirements, like feeding and clothing the poor, that was a responsibility which rested with the clergy. We live in a society where various social systems can be called on in such a situation, but then, this was a matter handled by the church. The Grey Friars were left to manage with a little dignity the burial of the erstwhile king. We can assume in this context that this was done privately, without the military or royal presences we would usually expect at such a moment. Hence also the reports (and I look forward to reading more of the contemporary paperwork) that it was done without “pomp or ceremony”. The Tudors wanted him well dead, and then some, which we know when we go to watch Shakespeare. That Henry VII is supposed to have ordered a memorial over the spot says something about the Tudors’ need to restore monarchical honour in the next generation, even if they were the winners, but it also leaves us to ponder what must have happened when the Grey Friars buildings were destroyed in the late 1530s. Somebody down the street knew something, just minding their own business. That the rumour persisted that Richard’s remains were still in the precinct attests to the marvellous nature of local awareness and how it can run counter to the ideological wishes of the time.

The exhumation and identification of Richard III has demolished the Reformation Legend that at the Dissolution of the House after 1536 his remains were taken and tossed into the nearby river. Clearly feelings about Richard were still running high in Leicester fifty years after his death, though how and why this Legend was promoted now becomes an interesting matter for an historian. The Franciscans quietly and diligently did the job they would do for anyone, that they had to do for anyone. That his remains will now be reburied with “pomp and ceremony” at the nearby cathedral is one of the curiosities of church history.

The King's Remains, resting on Black Velvet in Leicester in 2013

Friday, 1 February 2013

Arcimboldo -- The Librarian: History

Philip Harvey

The Prague court of Rudolf II was one of the great centres of the later Renaissance. The emperor gathered about him alchemists and scientists, astrologers and astronomers, authors and artists of every kind. Creativity was the keynote, compatibility less so. One artist whom Rudolf inherited from his father’s reign, and who for this reason has strangely become synonymous with the history of Prague, was the Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526-1593).

Arcimboldo enjoys a unique place in Western art, with opinion divided about the exact value of his work. He took everyday objects and used them as montage portraits, so for example his four personifications of the seasons use stock from the green grocer to fashion human heads. He created portraits of Rudolf II himself in this fashion, leaving us to ponder whether we are staring at someone “younger than springtime”, the top banana, the apple of our eye, or an old fruit. The fascination with Arcimboldo’s paintings is not just that they are talking points, but that they challenge our own ideas about their exact purpose. One such painting utilises drapes, books and papers: ‘The Librarian’ (circa 1562).

Arcimboldo’s paintings seem to exist in the borderlands between symbolic archetypes and deliberate satire. From our distance it is hard to tell sometimes whether one of his masterpieces, the Emperor portrayed as the Roman god Vertumnus, is a marvel of imperial claims, or a sly dig at the pretensions of an indulgent humanist. His painting of a man with a face made of a fish and a pig is grotesque, surely, but viewers at the time knew instantly who the person was from the likeness and may have treated it as no more than a game of identification. Today we conjecture as to whether it is even the Swiss Reformer John Calvin. It’s guesswork. Not that Arcimboldo’s audience were naïve. The sixteenth century is rife with satirical portraits and maybe Arcimboldo has taken ideas from these send-ups of rulers and turned them into serious art works. They have become what we would call concept art.

‘The Librarian’ has literally been constructed from books. The resemblance to a human being provokes the riddle about what came first, the books or the person. It steps over the line of characterisation into that space where a person is defined by what they do. At this level we are trapped in the lazy thinking that wants to summarise someone up by a simple equation of a librarian as a mere organiser of books, or of books being the things that shape that person. It is objectification.

Lazy is a word that has come to mind for a reason. Scholars believe that this is not just a portrait of any librarian but of Wolfgang Lazius, which is the Latinized name of Wolfgang Laz (1514-1565), one of the Brains Trust of the Habsburg courts. Like others in this stellar world of multi-skilled polymaths, Lazius was an Austrian physician, cartographer, historian, and bookman. One commentator writes, “You will note that Arcimboldo has painted the librarian's paper ‘fingers’ clutching a stack of books acquisitively. Over 400 years later, Lazius still hasn't been able to shake the reputation that he obtained records by whatever means necessary ... including theft.” (Shelley Esaak) With such knowledge of motive and history we look at the painting in a new way.

Laura Thain on Thu further extends the background. “Scholars read The Librarian in two distinct ways. The contemporary reading (which much subsequent scholarship has acknowledged or substantiated) argues the portrait was a personal attack levied at one Wolfgang Lazius, HRE Ferdinand I’s court historian in the Habsburg court at Vienna, for his vain and inaccurate scholarship. Yet K. C. Elhard argues instead that Arcimboldo’s painting criticized not poor scholarship but poor bookmanship—that is, it levied a critique against ‘materialist book collectors more interested in acquiring books than reading them.’” 

Like much else in Rudolfine Prague, this painting fell victim to the subsequent extremes of the Thirty Years’ War. Many of Arcimboldo’s paintings were lost or destroyed. This one was snaffled by the invading Swedish Army as part of the booty, which is why to this day it hangs not in the great gallery at Hradcany Castle in Prague but in Skoklosters Castle near Stockholm. Indeed, Arcimboldo’s works disappeared from the scene for centuries, whether due to changes in taste, or neglect, or the usual wasting of time itself.

Reception history does not clarify precisely when Arcimboldo was rediscovered in the 20th century, though commentators are firm in the view that Salvador Dali was inspired by him and that he came again to general attention in the 1930s. This puts at odds those art historians who, for example, like to say that Arcimboldo was 350 years ahead of Cubism. Planes and sections are a feature of ‘The Librarian’, but the painting is a world apart from Picasso, Gris, and Braque. Arcimboldo’s purposes are altogether different from those of Cubism, his draughtsmanship is precise and realistic, and his worldview is almost perverse in its Mannerism. One wonders (doubts is a better word) if a Cubist ever saw Arcimboldo before World War One or what he would have made of Arcimboldo’s wacky presentations. Their own obsessions with the picture plane owe most to the breakthroughs of their immediate predecessor, Paul Cezanne.

Nor can we say with any confidence that Arcimboldo was a Surrealist before the fact. The Milanese and the Hapsburgs of the 16th century went mad over him, but cool heads prevailed for 300 years and his star went cold. We can see why the Surrealists were attracted to Giuseppe Arcimboldo: his daring anthropomorphism, his morphing of the natural with the extreme and grotesque, his prodigious alchemy of the everyday and the dreamlike. Personally though, I find the connections between the Mannerist Arcimboldo and Surrealism more a matter of 20th century fellow feeling and inspiration, less so a matter of kindred intentions. The Italian is playing a game of witty artifice, not an intensive exploration of dreamscapes and alienation. 

Any study of this artist has also to acknowledge the French literary theorist Roland Barthes. His book length essay on Arcimboldo addresses the “visual articulation of the intersection of man and nature”. As Thain on Thu says, “Barthes fixates on the way the artist employs rhetorical tropes into his painting—metonymy and paradox, for instance. For Barthes, Arcimboldo is a ‘rhetorician and magician’ because of the structural semiotics he represents in his paintings; each part of what we recognize as a face is a discrete element meaningless in isolate, but when assembled, the elements of his paintings produce meaning in a sum greater than their parts. While Barthes argues that these “puzzles” are a metaphor for language, they also strongly exhibit Arcimboldo’s debt to Florentine Neoplatonism in their commitment to displaying meaning only as a composite body.  When dissected, they cease to speak.” Perhaps the best way of abstracting her words is to say that Arcimboldo demonstrates, rather blatantly, Barthes’ view that meaning is a construct, and that our sense of what is being conveyed depends mainly on the components of the work, be they words, images, or some other medium. Certainly Arcimboldo appears at a time in Western art where game playing has become central rather than peripheral to the artistic act. He leads the way into the Baroque.

Meanwhile we enjoy ‘The Librarian’ from a different time and perspective altogether, as can be appreciated when we visit the gallery down the corridor here.


Barthes, Roland. Arcimboldo. Franco Maria Ricci, 1980.
Demetz, Peter. Prague in Gold and Black : the History of a City. Penguin, 1998.
Esaak, Shelley. In: Art History, 2008, on an Arcimboldo Exhibition held in Paris and Vienna.
Graham-Dixon, Andrew. The Librarian by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, at
Thain on Thu, Laura. The Fate of Arcimboldo, the Fate of the Book, 2012, at