Friday, August 26, 2011

so radiantly set out with rings and jewels, lawns, scarves, laces, gold

I went from Holbrook Jackson's Anatomy of Bibliomania to a book of essays by John Berger, a whiplash change of viewpoint, since Berger is a Marxist who hopes that one day a revolution will reduce the desire of human beings for private property, and Jackson is a bookman -- "bookman" is the word he likes -- who spends six hundred and forty-six pages singing glory hallelujah to personal libraries. Anatomy itself is a covetable item of private property, I know, because I wanted to buy it at Powell's in Portland once upon a time, after I found it on a shelf under a window, hardbacked and blue and noted in the margins, and I hung over it like a moon of love, but the book was marked at twenty-five dollars and covetousness never made anyone rich, and so the one I read was a library copy.

He's imitating the Anatomy of Melancholy, as you can see by the title, and he splits his examination of the bibliomaniac into different categories, as Robert Burton did, so that a chapter that opens with The Misfortune of Books is separated into I. Trials and Tribulations, II. Books Lost and Found, III. Neglect and Misuse, IV. Perils of Fire and Water, and the chapter called A Digression of Book Worms is divided into I. A Common Enemy in Every Age, II., The Legendary Bookworm, III. The Bookworm and His Several Variations, IV. Nomenclature and Classification, V. How The Bookworm Discovered America -- etc -- and he fillets quotations into his sentences with Burtonish italics, like this:

Some would have them be microcosms, embracing all life: the making of Shakespeare's mind was the making of the world. Books, said William Wordsworth, are a substantial world both pure and good. Leigh Hunt would have that they are half of the known world, the globe we inhabit being divisible into two worlds: the common geographical world, and the world of books; and he holds further, they are such real things, that, if habit and perception make the difference between real and unreal, we may say that we frequently wake out of common life to them, than out of them to common life. Stephen Mallarmé cries that the world was made for nothing more than to produce a beautiful book, which some even among good bookmen may account a heresy ...

("The making of Shakespeare's mind …" came from Gathered Leaves by Mary E. Coleridge and this fact is in one of Jackson's footnotes.)*

The book is a rush of voices culled and organised and sub-organised and then organised again, clipped off in mid-flow however the author wants, both rabble and order, the author as supervisor or cat-herder, commenting on the personalities of the cats ("and though I adventure to affirm nothing of the truth and certainty of this supposition," adds Jackson at the end of the sentence quote above, "yet I must needs say, it does not seem to me unreasonable") though he doesn't rhapsodise as much as Burton sometimes did,** and he doesn't express himself in lists, while Burton was an author who, overrun by the atmosphere of babble, listed and babbled himself, chucking himself into the stream and babbling more than anyone, a man who fought in two directions, a man saying, "There are too many raindrops to count," and then trying to count them -- lists, lists: -- setting up obstacles for himself and clawing his way over them: -- like this: -- "she," he writes, "was so radiantly set out with rings and jewels, lawns, scarves, laces, gold, spangles, and gaudy devices …" and "For besides fear and sorrow, which is common to all melancholy, anxiety of mind, suspicion, aggravation, restless thoughts, paleness, meagreness, neglect of business, and the like, these men are farther yet misaffected …" and, "Parents and such as have the tuition and oversight of children, offend many times in that they are too stern, always threatening, chiding, brawling, whipping, or striking," and, "For in the head, as there be several parts, so there be divers grievances, which according to that division of Heurnius, (which he takes out of Arculanus,) are inward or outward (to omit all others which pertain to eyes and ears, nostrils, gums, teeth, mouth, palate, tongue, weezle, chops, face, &c.) belonging properly to the brain, as baldness, falling of hair, furfur, lice, &c" -- and then kept expanding his book whenever a new edition came out, well, you might say, there are always more words, some lose their wits by terrible objects, he claims. In this labyrinth of accidental causes, the farther I wander, the more intricate I find the passage, multae ambages , and new causes as so many by-paths offer themselves to be discussed: to search out all, were an Herculean work, and fitter for Theseus: I will follow mine intended thread; and point only at some few of the chiefest.

A zoo of words, a marshalling of ornament, this arrangement of verbs and nouns as if they were objects on a shelf, and this intimation of flood, of flooding; every time he begins a new list he starts us on a road that could go on for twenty lines or end after only three examples, a rollercoastery and exhausting way of writing -- exhausting for the reader, who is suspended in a state of excited and deranged vigilance, never knowing what the writer is going to do next, he might veer off into another list, he might come to a sudden halt and chop the list short with "&c." All writing asks for dominance over the reader but Burton makes the dominance obvious. The book is all dominance, this ragbag encyclopaedia, a Johnsonian exercise, a hysteric maintaining his hysteria.

Johnson used to rise early to read him. "It is, perhaps, overloaded with quotation," he told Boswell. "But there is great spirit and great power in what Burton says, when he writes from his own mind."

* You can find it here, with an introduction by Edith Sichel.

FOR most people there is a beginning and an end. It is important to recall that they were born, and that they died at such and such a date. But to say of Mary Coleridge that she was born in September 1861, that she lived nearly forty-six years, and died in August 1907, means little. She was never of any age, and excepting that as life went on she grew and ripened, she was much the same at twenty as at forty.

** eg. "Expect a little, confer future and times past with the present, see the event and comfort thyself with it. It is as well to be discerned in commonwealths, cities, families, as in private men's estates. Italy was once lord of the world, Rome the queen of cities, vaunted herself of two myriads of inhabitants; now that all-commanding country is possessed by petty princes, Rome a small village in respect. Greece of old the seat of civility, mother of sciences and humanity, now forlorn, the nurse of barbarians, a den of thieves. Germany then, saith Tacitus, was incult and horrid, now full of magnificent cities: Athens, Corinth, Carthage, how flourishing cities! now buried in their own ruins: corrorum ferarum, aprorum et bestiarum lustra, like so many wildernesses, a receptacle of wild beasts. Venice, a poor fisher-town, Paris, London, small cottages in Ceasar's time, now most notable emporiums."

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