Friday, January 18, 2013

Gibbonian Periods

Edward Gibbon: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Ed. David Womersley. Penguin Classics (1994)

Gibbon observes that in the Arabian book par excellence, in the Koran, there are no camels; I believe if there were any doubt as to the authenticity of the Koran, this absence of camels would be sufficient to prove it is an Arabian work.
- Jorge Luis Borges: "The Argentine Writer and Tradition"

What was my surprise, whilst trawling through the seemingly endless pages of volume 5 of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to find the following remark, squirreled away unobtrusively in a footnote?

... Mahomet himself, who was fond of milk, prefers the cow, and does not even mention the camel; but the diet of Mecca and Medina was already more luxurious ...
- Gibbon, vol. 5, chapter L, ftnt.13
[Penguin Classics ed., vol. III, p. 155]

What's most interesting is that this remark follows a long disquisition on horses ["Arabia, in the opinion of the naturalist, is the genuine and original country of the horse" (III: 154-55.)], and is not really concerned with the Koran and its contents at all (except in passing).

Did Borges get it wrong? He did have a tendency to exaggerate the significance of particular passages he'd found in the classics which seemed to vindicate some particularly outrageous paradox of his: witness his claims about the legendary "602nd Night" of the 1001 Nights, when Scheherazade - allegedly - starts to retell her own story (for more on that assertion, see my essay here).

As in the case of Scheherazade, there's always a whisker of truth in what he says. After all, Mahomet could scarcely "not have mentioned" the camel anywhere except in the Koran, so Borges is teasing out an implication which is undoubtedly there in Gibbon's text - in however tenuous a form.

What else does Gibbon say in this memorable chapter 50 of the Decline and Fall, though? In the midst of a long discussion of Arabic culture, he suddenly gives vent to the following disavowal:

Their [the Arabs'] language and letters are copiously treated by Pocock ... and Niebuhr ... I pass slightly; I am not fond of repeating words like a parrot.
- Gibbon, vol. 5, chapter L, ftnt.39
[Penguin Classics ed., vol. III, p. 164]

It wasn't his field. He was at the mercy of his sources. And (unfortunately) on this occasion - as so often latterly, once he'd left the better-trodden field of the Greek and Roman classics - they led him astray. A simple search of an online version of the Koran gives us no fewer than 18 matches for the word "camel."

X marks the spot.
"It was here on the evening of the 15th October, 1764 that Edward Gibbon formed the idea of writing the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
More or less ..."

The first volume of Gibbon's masterwork appeared in 1776, on the eve of the American Revolution (or "War of Independence," if you prefer the British usage). The next instalment of two volumes came out in 1781, when that war had reached its climax. The last package of three volumes was published in 1788, on the eve of the French Revolution.

Gibbon's Enlightenment view of the 'settled" nature of modern times was thus continually overtaken by events. Is his book, then, too outdated, too invalidated by subsequent research and archaeology to be worth reading any more?

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. vol. 2 (1995)

One of the reviewers of David Womersley's magisterial 3-volume Penguin Classics edition remarked that - strangely enough - it was the supplementary notes and "corrections" of such Victorian scholars as J. B. Bury which read most archaically now. Gibbon himself, by contrast, seems to speak every more clearly over the more than two centuries that separate his work from us.

I first tried to read Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1977, shortly after buying all six volumes of the Everyman edition from Vintage Books in Elliott Street.

The shop (long since pulverised into dust: it was situated somewhere in the vicinity of the Atrium on Elliott mall, and though intact in my imagination, has now - literally - no earthly habitation) was one of my favourite haunts, and I still remember the day I walked in and saw the red and gold volumes sitting there, in a neat little row. The price was "$9 for 6," which seemed pretty reasonable even at the time.

I promptly scooped them up and took them to the from of the shop. At this stage, however, I was interrupted by a rather flustered gentleman who'd apparently been summoned by phone by the owners to look over this recently acquired set of books. "I've been looking for it for years," he exclaimed, in an appeal to my better nature.

"So have I," I replied, and continued my inexorable progress to the till. I still feel guilty about that, I must admit. He must have seen me as some jumped-up interloper, heading him off at the moment of consummation of the quest of a lifetime. And yet I had been looking for it for years - a complete set of Gibbon was high on my list of most desirable books (along with an unabridged Arabian Nights and the collected works of William Morris) ...

Right was undoubtedly on my side, and yet I can still hear that plaintive voice in my ear. Every time I ran across another second-hand set of that or other editions of Gibbon, I thought of him, and hoped that he'd run across another copy without too much delay. In any case, I bought it, took it home, and - impelled as much by guilt as interest, perhaps - started to read it.

Edward Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Ed. Oliphant Smeaton. Everyman's Library. 6 vols (1910)

(As you can see, I used to brand my books with that rather barbarous rubber stamp back then, but it's still quite interesting to see the dates.)

Anyway, to make a long story short, I think I got to the end of volume one before I gave up. The sheer sweep and extent of Gibbon's historical imagination was beyond me, and I just bogged down each time I tried to get going on volume two. I did, however, enjoy reading the standard edition of his autobiography, which I picked up a couple of years later.

Edward Gibbon: Autobiography
Ed. Lord Sheffield. The World's Classics (1907)

In Edinburgh, in the late 1980s, I knew a young American who'd made a fortune on the Stock Exchange, then retired to pursue a more worthy life of scholarship and reflection (though he did have a bad habit of trying to hit on each of the female students in the class one after the other). Like me, he was called Jack, and we became friends of a sort. The main focus of his studies was Gibbon, and he would endlessly extol the beauty and complexity of the Decline and Fall. "Have you read the whole thing?" I asked him one day (somewhat naively, in retrospect).

He stared at me incredulously. "Are you joking? It's huge. No, I'm just reading the passages that my supervisor [a certain Mr. Geoffrey Carnall, if I remember rightly] recommends to me."

So much for the other Jack's scholarship. Not that I could claim any better. Our acquaintance eventually foundered over a rather bizarre graduation lunch party he hosted, where he asked me - as a kind of concession to his fetish for all things old and musty and imperial - to make the "loyal toast" to the reigning sovereign. None of the Brits present had been ready to oblige, but I felt, given that Elizabeth II was titular head of state for NZ as well the UK, that I could do so without any great abridgement of conscience.

Mr Carnall, who was present (and, it turned out, a devout Quaker) was grievously shocked and offended, and I must confess that I've often regretted since indulging Jack's seemingly harmless request. Symbols are realer than they seem, I learned that day, and I've been careful not to bow down too assiduously in the House of Rimmon ever since.

A subsequent attempt to read Gibbon in the late nineties took me as far as the fourth volume of the Everyman edition, where I got snared in the intricacies of Justinian's legal and religious institutions (the account of which seemed to have dominated most of the volume).

Then came David Womersley's great Penguin edition:

Edward Gibbon: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Ed. David Womersley. Penguin Classics. vol 1 of 3 (1994).

    Edward Gibbon (1737-1794)

  1. Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Ed. Oliphant Smeaton. 6 vols. Everyman’s Library. 1910. London: J. M. Dent / New York: E. P. Dutton, 1928.

  2. Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Volume the First (1776) and Volume the Second (1781). Ed. David Womersley. 1994. Penguin Classics. 1995. Rev. ed. Vol 1 of 3. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2005.

  3. Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Volume the Third (1781) and Volume the Fourth (1788). Ed. David Womersley. 1994. Penguin Classics. Vol 2 of 3. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1995.

  4. Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Volume the Fifth (1788) and Volume the Sixth (1788). Ed. David Womersley. 1994. Penguin Classics. Vol 3 of 3. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1995.

  5. Gibbon, Edward. Autobiography. Ed. Lord Sheffield. Introduction by J. B. Bury. The World’s Classics. London: Henry Frowde / Oxford University Press, 1907.

  6. Gibbon, Edward. Gibbon’s Journey from Geneva to Rome: His Journal from 20 April to 2 October 1764. Ed. Georges A. Bonnard. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., 1961.

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. vol. 1 (1995)

I'm therefore glad to report, after 35 years (1977-2013), that I've finally succeeded in reaching the end of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788). And what have I learned from the experience?

Well, he certainly does have a down on the Byzantine empire (early and late). I've never read a more sympathetic account of the notorious Fourth Crusade, when the Venetians devoted a mob of French and Germans bound for Palestine into attacking their fellow-Christians in Constantinople instead.

He's very interesting on Mahomet and the rise of Islam; surprisingly well-informed on Attila and Genghis Khan and Tamurlane and other great invaders from the East. He also gets in some amusing side-swipes at Voltaire and Dr. Johnson, both of whom seem to have offended him at various times.

Beyond that, though, all I can say is that if you have the slightest curiosity in how Western civilisation went from Marcus Aurelius to Pope Alessandro Borgia, with extensive divagations down every interesting byway in the history of over a thousand years, then Gibbon is your man. More than that: Womersley's is your edition. The true nature of Gibbon's work comes into focus there, freed of the accretions of nineteenth and twentieth-century commentators and improvers - and complete with his fascinating Vindication of the accuracy of his chapters on the early church, which caused such controversy with Ecclesiastical historians then and since.

And how else will you ever be able to check the accuracy of statements such as Borges's about Gibbon's view on the presence or absence of camels from the Koran? I've seen it quoted everywhere, but nobody else has bothered to check it (so far as I know, at any rate) ...

Sir Joshua Reynolds: Edward Emily Gibbon

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Leicester Kyle: Selected Shorter Poems

"Another Rare Botanical Discovery for the Millerton Botanist!"
(Jim Conolly: 2005)

Yesterday I finished posting online the last major remaining section of Leicester Kyle's posthumous poetic works: a selection of his shorter poems, the ones he didn't himself collect in book form during his lifetime.

It's a bit under two years (15 February, 2011, to be exact) since David Howard wrote to me suggesting that we finally bite the bullet and face up to our duties as Leicester's officially designated literary executors. The dual website that resulted, one site devoted to indexing and secondary literature, the other to primary texts, which we launched on July 4th 2011, is now substantially complete.

Of course there are still a number of things to do: I need to make a list of his published poems in periodicals from the copies included in his archive (the remaining sections of which I collected from David when I was down in Dunedin in June last year). The - very perfunctory - chronology page on the website needs a lot of work, too.

Those are inessential tasks, though, I feel, when set alongside the basic imperative of getting the bulk of his work up online so it can be read by poetry-lovers and ecologists everywhere.

That's not to say that I'm anticipating an avalanche of interest: just that I think that Leicester's unique blend of environmental activism, combined with spiritual acuity and a lively interest in postmodern aesthetics, makes him a very useful role model for contemporary poets. If he has anything to say to writers grappling with similar issues in their work right now, then his writings have to be available. In that sense, then, I think David and I have fulfilled our trust. I hope so, anyway.

Leicester was a very good friend of mine, but he was not always the easiest of men to get on with. The surviving volumes of his diary (in particular) contain some very unvarnished word portraits which I doubt he would have wished to be made public. Similarly, there are a good many tentative and unsuccessful pieces in the two fileboxes labelled "Collected Poems," which contained (as he told me) all the work in this genre he wished to preserve.

While I've thought it best to present in full all of the finished works he left us with: the 19 books extending from Options (1996 / 1997) to Breaker (2005), as well as complete texts of those which were substantially complete (albeit unpublished) at his death: Message from a Lightboard (1996), Koroneho (1996 / 2011), The Galapagos Tracts (c.1999-2006) and the God Poems (c.2005), I've accordingly been far more selective with the shorter poems.

Boxfiles I-IV (of 8)

To give you a sense of what I mean, here are a few statistics to mull over:
  • 19 published books (1996-2005) = 913 pp.
  • 4 posthumous books (1996-2006) = 303 pp.
  • 2 boxfiles of shorter poems (1983-2006) = 957 pp.
To be more precise, there are 746 poems and sequences included in the two boxfiles (some in more than one version). This translates to 860 separate poems, occupying the 957 pages listed above. Quite a few of them (66, to be precise [= 80 poems / pages]) are, admittedly, included in one or other of the 23 books. But then there are another 36 uncollected poems among his computer files, not to mention various miscellaneous verses in Christmas cards, pamphlets, etc.

In all, then, I've so far counted up 2194 pages of poetry left behind by Leicester on his death. The 23 major books account for 1216 pp. of this. I've also posted 14 pp. of miscellaneous pamphlets and ephemera, plus 24 of the 36 uncollected poems on the website. Of the remaining 746 shorter poems and sequences, I've selected roughly a quarter, 193 [200/680 poems; 253/957 pages]. This brings the grand total up to 1570 pp. of his poetry now available online.

I think that's enough. Admittedly it's a subjective judgement. There are still 488 poems and sequences (530 separate poems / 624 pp.) left: all accessible in typescript, and some available as wordfiles also. Future students are welcome to look them over, but I don't myself feel that it would add greatly to his reputation to publish them all online at present. Even Keats and Pushkin must blush to see some of the slighter verses included in their collected works by sedulous editors. The time may come when that's appropriate for Leicester Kyle as well, but that time is not yet.

So, in any case, here they all are:

Collected Poems I: 1983-1998

Shorter Poems: 1


  1. Grapefruit [1983]
  2. In a New Country [n.d.]
  3. Hallelujah [June 1994]
  4. Kerikeri, 1946 [n.d.]
  5. Dancing Maria [n.d.]
  6. Ancient Worship [n.d.]
  7. Coal Kingdom [March 1995]
  8. Pipes [April 1995]
  9. House Guest [n.d.]
  10. Edge [July 1995]

  11. Shorter Poems: 2


  12. I Love You (for Miriel) [n.d.]
  13. Quietly [Sept 1995]
  14. Maundy Thursday at the Mangonui Pub [n.d.]
  15. God [n.d.]
  16. Karamea Jones [n.d.]
  17. Blue Orchids at Burnetts Face [n.d.]
  18. Unworldly Thoughts in an Auckland Brothel [n.d.]
  19. Walking to Taylor's [n.d.]:
    • Clematis
    • The Heads
    • Geckos
    • Water
    • Cave Houses
    • My Father
  20. Caravan Club [n.d.]
  21. Where Do I Want to Be [14/1/96]
  22. Time Please [n.d.]
  23. A Walk Around My Church [n.d.]
  24. Living on the Cheap [n.d.]
  25. I do magic ... [n.d.]
  26. Clean Café [n.d.]
  27. My Father’s House [n.d.]
  28. Sweeney on a Bicycle [n.d.]
  29. A Visit to My Psychiatrist [23/9/96]
  30. A Cliff on Mt. Owen [n.d.]

  31. Shorter Poems: 3


  32. His Place [n.d.]
  33. Re-Possession [n.d.]
  34. Deep Throat [n.d.]
  35. Morning Magic [n.d.]
  36. Your Spirit Comes to the Aid of My Weakness [n.d.]
  37. A Visit from the North [n.d.]
  38. On the Slab [n.d.]
  39. Sometime in the eighties ... [n.d.]
  40. Greymouth [n.d.]
  41. The Christchurch Botanical Gardens Horticultural Apprentices’ Mutual Improvement Society [n.d.]
  42. Breakfast in Our Block [n.d.]
  43. This Book of Ours [3/10/96]
  44. Goethe in Sicily [3/10/96]
  45. Hound [n.d.]
  46. Ancient Worship [n.d.]
  47. Ibn al Farid (Cairo, 1280) [n.d.]
  48. It’s so quiet ... [21/2/97]

  49. Shorter Poems: 4


  50. Mavis [n.d.]
  51. Day From Under A Lillypilly [n.d.]
  52. Last Night At Poetry Live [1/5/97]
  53. Comfort Stop [5/5/97]
  54. Passing On [5/5/97]
  55. ‘The nothing, not pure nothing, left over …’ [5/5/97]
  56. Ornebius aperta(new-settled from Australia) [21/5/97]
  57. Letter to Lorine (Niedecker) [21/5/97]
  58. Twice Shy [21/5/97]
  59. Villas in Milton Street [6/6/97]
  60. A Letter from Elise [24/6/97]
  61. Mary's Yard [24/6/97]
  62. A Question At The End Of The Line [11/9/97]
  63. The Lady Meets The New Land [11/9/97]
  64. Death [30/9/97]
  65. Precinct [30/9/97]
  66. Epithalamion (for Anna and Richard, 14.6.97) [12/6/97]
  67. By Touch [10/10/97]
  68. To Live In A Cave [31/10/97]
  69. rustling / says Jack ... [31/10/97]
  70. An Artichoke In The White Garden At Gledswood [25/11/97]
  71. On hot spring nights ... [27/11/97]
  72. On The Way [27/11/97]
  73. Small Change [27/11/97]
  74. If I Were a Tree [27/11/97]
  75. The Tent [31/12/97]
  76. This ... [31/12/97]
  77. Last Lost [31/12/97]
  78. Her Grand-son’s Son [n.d.]:
    • When you found out …
    • Remember though …
    • Meet me Mama when I do …
  79. If I don’t get my words out ... [12/2/98]
  80. At A Time Of Sickness [12/2/98]
  81. Birthday [17/3/98]
  82. The Other Half [17/3/98]
  83. Bivouac [17/3/98]
  84. Independence Day [31/3/98]
  85. Thelymitra pulchella [16/4/98]
  86. Death In A Tower Block [16/4/98]
  87. At Night [16/4/98]
  88. Liturgy (for Miriel) [16/4/98]

  89. Collected Poems II: 1998-2006

    Shorter Poems: 5


  90. Surf [3/6/98]
  91. I saw the soul ... [3/6/98]
  92. An Incomplete List [3/6/98]
  93. Over The Hill [3/6/98]
  94. An Answer to the Last Thing [17/7/98]
  95. Burnett’s Face [17/7/98]
  96. Metrosideros [17/7/98]
  97. Home Thoughts by a Rough Sea [18/7/98]
  98. Sunday Morning at Millerton [19/7/98]
  99. My Home [20/8/98]
  100. Water Lines [n.d.]
  101. Driftwood [20/9/98]
  102. Dear Judy [21/10/98]
  103. Cursor in a Tangled Field [23/10/98]
  104. As In Burden Bound [27/11/98]
  105. Marlowe Overwritten [3/12/98]
  106. An Argument With Houses [22/1/99]
  107. Below the Fall [23/3/99]
  108. Life on the Flatlands [23/3/99]
  109. New Year at Millerton [28/4/99]
  110. Whistler’s Mother [21/5/99]
  111. Local Resources [3/6/99]
  112. The Call [3/6/99]
  113. The Bones of an Arse [13/7/99]
  114. A Rule [16/7/99]
  115. Puzzle Poem [16/7/99]
  116. My Coughing Cat [Sept ’99]
  117. From ----, With Love [Sept ’99]
  118. My New Flower [21/10/99]
  119. The Buried Village [21/10/99]
  120. It’s a stubborn day ... [2/12/99]
  121. “The River Sluices with Many Voices” [2/12/99]

  122. Shorter Poems: 6


  123. At The Falls [4/4/00]
  124. Outage [4/4/00]
  125. The City Lies Foursquare [n.d.]
  126. Mr. Gonzales [10/5/00]
  127. Battle of the Bands [10/5/00]
  128. Lyn’s Zinnias [14/8/00]
  129. The Great Buller Coal Plateaux [10/10/00]
  130. Omnia Propter Femina [10/10/00]
  131. Cars Cash and Convertibles [8/11/00]
  132. I am two weathers ... [11/11/00]
  133. The Plateau [11/11/00]
  134. Downpour [30/10/01]
  135. The Lesser Leptopteris [30/10/01]
  136. Trail-Blazer [n.d.]
  137. A Bone at the Bushline [n.d.]
  138. Before the Throne [n.d.]
  139. Summer, Sumner, 1946 [n.d.]
  140. Mr Muir and Mr Emerson [n.d.]
  141. A Work Of Love In Remembering One Dead [31/5/02]
  142. The Impresario’s Muse [31/5/02]
  143. Poa cita [31/5/02]
  144. Endstop [20/12/02]
  145. Posterity [20/12/02]
  146. The Pit-Ponies' Picnic [1/7/03]
  147. Swing-Bridge [1/7/03]
  148. Night Shelter [28/8/03]
  149. (Proust Says) [12/9/03]
  150. I Like It When The Sun Doesn’t Shine [12/9/03]
  151. Happy Valley [31/10/03]
  152. In High Fog [20/1/04]

  153. Shorter Poems: 7


  154. A Person, Two; if not the Sun [22/1/04]
  155. ‘To Father Huc’s tree of Tartary / on which we are each leaves’ poetry.’ [26/1/04]
  156. Ev [30/1/04]
  157. If the words say silence suffers less / They suffer silence [26/3/04]
  158. Portent [7/5/04]
  159. The Tinder Box [7/5/04]
  160. Mother [7/5/04]
  161. View From the Roundabout [16/5/04]
  162. Home [16/5/04]
  163. Native At Midnight [16/5/04]
  164. Diary Of A Country Cop [17/6/04]
  165. To a Daughter Who Has Taken Her Life [11/8/04]
  166. For A Lost Longdrop [16/12/04]
  167. Tell Me [6/1/05]
  168. Water Talk [6/1/05]
  169. The Little Mermaid [6/1/05]
  170. Useless Love [6/1/05]
  171. Educating The Stream [6/1/05]
  172. Opus [6/1/05]
  173. The Four Comforts [4/2/05]
  174. Scar [8/2/05]
  175. The Toro Tree [8/2/05]
  176. Gloomy Friday [15/3/05]
  177. When The Bus Stops [4/7/05]
  178. The Rain-Callers [4/7/05]
  179. Herodotus [7/7/05]
  180. Paris [8/7/05]
  181. The New Mayor at the Old Mine [11/10/05]
  182. time out [17/10/05]
  183. Pre-Loved Days [16/1/06]
  184. Rain:

  185. Quiet Rain [19/1/06]
  186. The Southerly [19/1/06]
  187. Welcome [2/2/06]
  188. Yesterday [2/2/06]
  189. Flood [2/2/06]
  190. From The East [2/2/06]
  191. Night Rain [2/2/06]
  192. With Ice [2/2/06]
  193. Of Earth and Sky [2/2/06]
  194. The Botanist and his Dog [15/2/06]
  195. The Tree [15/2/06]
  196. The Sky Must Fall [15/2/06]
  197. We Were Talking [15/2/06]
  198. Nematoceras triloba [n.d.]
  199. The Creeping Sky Lily [n.d.]
  200. Actinotus suffocta [n.d.]

  201. Contents:

  202. After They Left [n.d.]
  203. Blue Orchid [n.d.]
  204. Braided River [n.d.]
  205. By Hand [n.d.]
  206. Clearance [n.d.]
  207. Close-up [n.d.]
  208. From the Dam, the Day After [n.d.]
  209. Give to the Flower [n.d.]
  210. Grace on the Plateau [25/12/99]
  211. In a Secular Time [n.d.]
  212. My Amiable Mate [n.d.]
  213. Our New Snail [n.d.]
  214. Photograph [n.d.]
  215. Porphyry Reef [n.d.]
  216. Potter’s Coil [n.d.]
  217. Rising Damp [n.d.]
  218. Sunday Late at Grafton [n.d.]
  219. Tai Poutini [n.d.]
  220. The End of the Day [n.d.]
  221. The Hairdresser and the Hat [n.d.]
  222. The Last Day [31/12/99]
  223. Uncomfort Rock [n.d.]
  224. Utu [n.d.]
  225. Weak Before You [n.d.]

  226. Contents:

  227. Christmas letter (1998)
  228. Christmas letter (c.1999)
  229. Red Dog / Brown (2005):

"Red" (2005)
(Jocelyn Maughan: Patonea, NSW)

I thought I'd finish by reprinting one of those Christmas messages. It seems somehow to sum up how I feel about the whole enterprise, now that it's (mostly) finished, as well as being a beautiful elegy for Leicester's first wife Miriel:


I’ve worked for you
for forty years or so,
wandering about
in some pretty strange places,
and liked it.

Thanks, God,
it’s been good.
You treated me well
and watched over those
whom I love.

But now, if you will,
let me be.
Let me off the hook
for a time,
to loaf in the garden,
write a poem or two,
and read a book.

Then, when I go to bed,
give me a long sleep,
and strength for a good work.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Copernicus & Mallock: Two Bizarre Books

[Owen Gingerich: The Book Nobody Read (2004)]

[Tom Phillips: A Humument (1980 / 2012)]

Sometime around noon on the 5th of November, 1966, the artist Tom Phillips was poking around an old warehouse in London, looking for bargain books:

When we arrived at the racks of cheap and dusty books left over from house clearances I boasted to Ron [Kitaj] that if I took the first one that cost threepence I could make it serve a serious long-term project. My eye quickly chanced on a yellow book with the tempting title A Human Document. Looking inside we found it had the fateful price. 'If it's a dime,' said Ron, 'then that's your book: and I'm your witness.' ['Notes on A Humument,' p.370]

45 years and five editions later, A Humument stands as a curious monument to human ingenuity. "Energy worthy of a better cause," as my father might say. Or energy very sensibly employed, perhaps? Who can say ...

Phillips does goes out of his way to mention the interesting fact that the warehouse stood on "Peckham Rye, where William Blake saw his first angels", and it was (of course) Blake who once reminded us that energy is "eternal delight."

Sometime in October 1970, Historians of Science Jerry Ravetz and Owen Gingerich asked themselves whether (at the time or since) anyone had actually read Nicolaus Copernicus's ground-breaking text De revolutionibus orbium coelestium libri sex [Six books on the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres] (1543). The question was prompted by the rather bad review Arthur Koestler gave the book in his 1959 classic The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man's Changing Vision of the Universe. Koestler referred to Copernicus's book as an "all time worst seller" and "the book that nobody read." But was he right?

How can you actually tell if anyone read a book or not? A simple name on the fly-leaf is insufficient. I have lots of books in my collection which I've never read. Some of them are reference books which it's useful to have but which I'll never read cover to cover - others I'm been meaning to get to but haven't yet done so.

Nor is quoting from the book any kind of irrefutable proof. Plenty of people read the summaries and advertising copy for Copernicus's book, but did the do more than dip into its somewhat forbidding contents?

The answer (according to Gingerich) is marginal annotations. His conversation in York that Saturday evening in 1970 prompted him to look up a copy of the first edition at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh. It turned out to be annotated from beginning to end, and thus suggested the interesting counter-question:

If it was read so rarely, why was the very next copy I chanced upon so full of evidence of a most perceptive reader, who had marked innumerable errors and who had worked his way through to the very end, even past the obscure material on planetary latitudes that brought up the rear of the four hundred page volume? [The Book Nobody Read, p.422]

And so began on what the blurb to his book calls "a thirty-year odyssey to examine every one of the hundreds of surviving copies of the original in order to prove [Koestler] wrong."

Once again, it sounds a rather unlikely way of spending one's time - fantastically arduous and demanding an almost insane level of precision in recording every detail of every copy (labour which eventually resulted in An Annotated Census of Copernicus' De Revolutionibus (Nuremberg, 543 and Basel, 1566) (Leiden: Brill, 2002), to which The Book Nobody Read is a rather more lighthearted companion volume).

Along the way, Gingerich discovered a huge amount about the sixteenth-century scholarly networks, transcending religion and politics, which united the astronomers and mathematicians of the age, and which enabled them to copy and supplement each other's notes in the margins of copy after copy of De revolutionibus. Koestler's rather flippant and dismissive remark was proved not only to be "dead wrong" (as Gingerich puts it), but to mask a whole complex of fascinating (and hitherto undreamt-of) connections.

[The Book Nobody Read]

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543)
  1. Gingerich, Owen. The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus. 2004. Arrow Books. London: The Random House Group Limited, 2005.
  2. Rosen, Edward, trans. Three Copernican Treatises: The Commentariolus of Copernicus / The Letter against Werner / The Narratio Prima of Rheticus. Second Edition, Revised with an Annotated Copernicus Bibliography, 1939-1958. 1939. New York: Dover Publications, 1959.
  3. Ptolemy. The Almagest / Copernicus. On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres / Kepler. Epitome of Copernican Astronomy: IV & V; The Harmonies of the World: V. Trans. R. Catesby Taliaferro, & Charles Glenn Wallis. Great Books of the Western World, 16. Ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins. Chicago: William Benton, Publisher / Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1952.
  4. Koestler, Arthur. The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man's Changing Vision of the Universe. 1959. Introduction by Herbert Butterfield. A Pelican Book. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1972.

[A Humument]

Tom Phillips (1937- )
  1. Phillips, Tom. A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel. 1980. Fifth Edition. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2012.

So what's my point in comparing these two projects? They both seem to have occupied roughly the same period of time: forty-odd years for Phillips, thirty-odd years for Gingerich. Both have as their central object the illumination / elucidation of a single book: in Gingerich's case a (famously unreadable) scientific classic, in Phillip's a (not very widely read) Victorian novel, W. H. Mallock's A Human Document (1892).

Of course in the one case Gingerich's labours could be said to have cast light on an obscure sector of intellectual history; whereas Phillips' indefatigable cutting and pasting and colouring casts light on nothing except the strange workings of his own mind.

Or do they? Surely the mere popularity of Phillips's book - in contradistinction to Mallock's, which failed miserably to equal the success of his earlier satirical novel The New Republic (1877) - tells us something about the spirit of our own age, our postmodern distrust of the sanctity of the text, our singular dedication to game-playing and chaos?

Both projects are equally crazy. I guess that's what I'd like to suggest to you. I know that Gingerich's comes accompanied with all the panoply of "hard" science - the graphs, the tables of analysis, the famous names of the past - but then Phillips doesn't lack those scholarly trappings either. The fascinating notes on his project reprinted at the back of his book refer to it as "'a Gesamtkunstwerk in small format'", though a "full Variorum Edition may remain a dream (or a posthumous project) since the wheel is still turning and the odd spark still flies off" [p.383].

Both books, Phillips' and Gingerich's, are in fact "Human Documents" of the most fascinating kind: they show the unexpected consequences of immersion in virtually any product of the human imagination. The fact that they're both consecrated to particular copies of a single book doe tend to endear them to bibliophiles such as myself, but one can easily see how the principle could be extended.

In his lifetime, as the caricature below suggests, Mallock had a hard time reconciling the conflicting claims of religion and science. it's hard to know if he would have been pleased to see one of his novels at the centre of so arbitrary an embellishment as A Humument, but I doubt that he would have failed to see the point. If we can have no clear idea in advance of the end results of our investigations, then it doesn't pay to reject any possible line of enquiry out-of-hand. This applies to Phillips' work every bit as much as Gingerich's.

['Spy': Is life worth living? (Vanity Fair, 1882)]

True, one might call Copernicus an intellectual giant, Mallock a dwarf, but it's salutary to remember that - during their respective lifetimes - the opposite was the case. Mallock was widely read and well regarded, while - to those very few who had heard of him - Copernicus was known only as an obscure cleric in a small town on Poland's Baltic coast, who exhibited the strange quirk of devoting his spare time to celestial mechanics.

One book I found lurking in the back of a second-hand shop in Whangarei; the other was lent to me by inveterate poet and text-experimenter Richard Taylor. I leave it to you to guess which was which.

[Nicolaus Copernicus (Toruń, 1580)]

Oh, and last but not least: a Happy New Year to you all ...