Tuesday, March 3, 2015

On my return from the vortex, where I had chanced upon such wonders...

These walls are filled with books, post and lintel spines fill the nooks of each shelf and odd corners.  A constant companion in the passenger side of my vehicle, a stack that represents the indecision of man-  what he might want to read as the vicissitudes of his moods change and he conducts his business there and thither.  Those who lust only for information needn't seek their sustenance in between the spread leaves of a fast and easy codex; if anything the printed page is something of a relic when it comes to pure information retrieval. The Renaissance humanist searching through stacks of codices and manuscripts for his research is a nostalgically romantic, and sometimes quite hilarious image.  Many of the inundated humanists began to see all this new knowledge as a crisis of information. How to organize it all?  This crisis is being handled fairly well by modern technology, but the bibliophile still feels a strong attraction, even one like myself who reads on his tablet and his phone.

While the bound paper and ink codex is still a staple for research, the book is also artifact, an objet d'art, something Indiana Jones might find on a pedestal before he is chased by maddened pygmies. Rare and ancient books have always had the allure of hidden knowledge and access to power.  John Dee was an Elizabethan biblio-wizard .  Dee is known to most people as Elizabeth I's astrologer, but Dee was a man who crossed oceans to pursue books, the kinds of books that might give him insight of to the mysteries of existence and time. Dee was interested in such secrets whether they pertained to mathematics or ritual intercourse with angels and astral beings.  This search for Profound Knowledge (is there anything more intimidatingly spiriting than 17th/18th century capitalization practices?) combined with the relative rarity of books imbued the codex form with a luster that went beyond the aesthetic, they were perceived to be both actually and metaphorically magic. While I am too much of a skeptic to believe in supernatural magic ( i.e. that which is distinct from "sufficiently advanced technologies") I cannot help feel a note of transcendence in the perception of real objects as intrinsically magical.  The men and woman who lusted after books and the knowledge they could convey color my personal view of books and the written word. This fascination with printed page, both for what it is and what it represents, causes many of us to surround ourselves with books we may never finish, or to own multiple copies of Jane Eyre, perhaps with the justification that we liked the new introduction Harold Bloom or Umberto Eco wrote for it.  Like Borges' tale of the man who copied down Don Quixote, the text is made "novel" due to it's permutation in a different form.  One just wants to read a text that much more when it's format appeal to his sense of aesthetics, or is perhaps more manageable to hold and turn pages while sipping coffee.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Legion and the Art of Ugly

Facade, San Francisco's Legion of Honor
Today I visited the city with the family to see the Impressionists on the Water gallery at the Legion of Honor, whose regular collection is impressive for variety, and includes masters like Rubens, Monet, and Picasso.  One can see Egyptian gold works, a Roman sarcophagus, a bass relief from the palace of Xerxes, and Hellenic pottery, all within a few feet of each other.  Of course, San Francisco's Legion is famous for having the most robust collection of Rodin originals outside of France (as well as a bronze cast of that perennial Rodin favorite "The Thinker" in the courtyard entrance.) Perhaps as enchanting as the pieces it houses is the building itself with it classical sensibilities.

Detail from The Russian Bride's Attire
While I'm certainly no connoisseur of fine arts in a normal sense, my interests in history and aesthetics make me a frequent patron of museums and galleries. On this trip I got the unique chance  to talk art with the family: a quite lively debate over a Rubens with my mom and gammy.  We also sat together on a bench and collectively speculated about possible narratives for the figures shown in Konstantin Makovsky's massive painting The Russian Bride's Attire (1889).   Museums are not just for the quiet, contemplative spectator, and beauty (and as we shall see, ugliness) is always best when shared with friends and loved ones.  
Museums can tax your energy.  It takes time and a bit of effort to get acquainted with a piece, and often a shift from intense focus on details like brushstrokes to a relaxed distance is neccessary to get the full effect of a painting.  Approaching fine art in this was can be rewarding, though it's hardly necessary to do this to enjoy yourself.  Nonetheless, when you are later admiring a particular work elsewhere (say, in a book), your interaction with the actual paining adds dimension and breadth to your relationship with a specific piece and art in general.  If you are fortunate enough to live near a collection such as the Legion's, repeat viewings allow you to follow the dictates of your whims and moods as you ebulliently skip though the gallery; different pieces that you might have overlooked will perhaps catch you eyes on future trips.  

        Why bother to to pursue such an endeavor at all?  I can only give you a personal account.  The perspective with which I view this aspect of culture stems from my interest in exploring the shifting aesthetics of human beings throughout history, as well as the desire to cultivate development of my own artistic sensibilities.  For a godless heathen like myself, interaction with the art of the ages is one of the many ways I negotiate and develop answers to the perennial and amorphous questions: "What does it mean to be human and, if such a thing exists, what is human nature?"   

This was the state of my mind when after a refreshing lunch we headed down the pedestrian-ridden hell-strip that is Clement Street in San Francisco's Richmond District to Green Apple Books, and I found a copy of Umberto Eco's On Ugliness, from the publisher Rizzoli, for the bargain price of $14.98.  In the same vein as Eco's History of Beauty and The Vertigo of Lists,  On Ugliness is simultaneously an art collection, philosophical treatise, literary sampler, and historical excursion,centered on the concept of intangible concept of  ugliness throughout human history.  From antiquity to the modern day, Eco traces the concept through visual art, literature, film, and philosophy to try and formulate an understanding on the origins of this concept (Is ugliness simply the opposite of what we call beauty?).  On almost every page we see visual depictions of the repulsive, including many entrancing closeups from the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and many lesser-known artists like Giacomo Grosso, as well as sharing passages from sources as diverse as Kant, Aeschylus, and H.P. Lovecraft.  Eco also tries to understand exactly why the horror and the grotesque has such a pull on the human psyche; even when we are repulsed or terrified by, we are drawn to it.

Giacomo Grosso, A study for The Supreme Meeting (1894)
While I plan on doing a full post on Umberto Eco at some point in the future, it will suffice for now to say that the Milanese professor of Semiotics brings his unparalleled erudition and  to the examination of ugliness and the result so far has been illuminating.  On Ugliness is a garden of earthly delight that I have often revisited, and hope you, dear reader, take a look at yourself.

This book may also give us at least some insight into the nightmare kingdom of horror cinema that is The Overlook Theatre, of which I am now an official citizen!  

Also, here is, randomly, some great music I came across composed by Corelli:

Sunday, August 4, 2013


                After a just-post-initiation hiatus, I've drafted a few extended length articles, one on opera and another about Coppola's metaphysical-fiction film Youth Without Youth.  While these are coming soon, this blog will be dedicated to my relationship with books and their coral clustered homes we call libraries, both my personal library, which is robust and growing, and my encounters with other libraries. Since books are about everything one could probably conceive or talk about (from one very limited perspective), we could just call it a blog about everything, but there are many things outside of the realms of the codex and the manuscript (after all, if there weren't, no one would be able to create new books) that are not found in our philosophy, thus, while our eyes will cast themselves softly over life's mutations, we look with the eyes of a bibliophile-humanist.

                     In honor of this conceit, a book I recently picked up seduced me with its cover (like humans and clothing, while our ultimate judgement may not be by covers alone, its hard to beat a first impression).  The title, The Library at Night shows a photograph of a man reading in a leather lounge chair, back the viewer, in the middle of a sparse forest.  I am swallowed by the soft rift that the book and the bed inspire, the night that tries to smother us is made friendly by the light and the book, the humanists holy amulets to ward off melancholly and black thoughts.  So far this book (I got it yesterday) takes that general impression and runs with it.  For now perhaps sharing that photo with you will pique your interest.

We also had some recent purchases:

Eco, Umberto. A Theory of Semiotics
                   I've been searching for a copy of Eco's original flagship work on his influential semoiotic system for a while now. $7.50

Camus, Albert.  The Plague.  
       A Vintage paperback edition of one of Camu's best novels, good-condition, $0.50.

Hitchens, Christopher.  Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens. 
       The honkin' hardcover edition, gorgeous design with a gargoyle-eyed Hitchens on the frontispiece, whose visages is haunting me from my bookshelf as I write.

I'll be back with more on the above-mentioned The Library in the Night (after I've read a bit more) as well as some gems I've checked out from my library (and place of work), as well as some longer essays. 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Prime Mover

At least a part of the genesis of this blog is a desire to help promote  my chum's theater, and noble though this might be, I suppose a blog cannot live on promotion alone; one is presumed to provide content, and so herein  will be a miscellany of my whims, edited for public consumption .  Rather then enumerate my positions and pretensions, I will let you, dear reader, extrapolate from my rhapsodies what you will. While my tone may at times be pompous or preening, I assure you this is simply the mode of expression I favor and not a condescension, though any perceived slights or ill will resulting from my tone will not be met with succor and apologies, but with condescension. 

That being said, I humbly thank you for taking a look at this page, even if it is just a quick glance.   I will put up a proper post shortly, until then, I leave you with this clip from a favorite film of mine.