19 March 2014

I knew I had a fever

Phases of the Disease: a brick in a giddy place; a steel beam in a whirling engine; my own person

That I had a fever and was avoided, that I suffered greatly, that I often lost my reason, that the time seemed interminable, that I confounded impossible existences with my own identity; that I was a brick in the house-wall, and yet entreating to be released from the giddy place where the builders had set me; that I was a steel beam of a vast engine, clashing and whirling over a gulf, and yet that I implored in my own person to have the engine stopped, and my part in it hammered off; that I passed through these phases of disease, I know of my own remembrance, and did in some sort know at the time.

—Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

Painting: Amedeo Modigliani, Little Girl in Blue (1918)

10 February 2014

A Glimpse of the Master's Genius

An idea that might vanish in the twinkling of an eye is captured on an old scrap of paper

There were curious little treasures of art and bits of antiquity strewn about. 

As interesting as any of these relics was a large portfolio of old drawings, some of which, in the opinion of their possessor, bore evidence on their faces of the touch of master-hands. Very ragged and ill conditioned they mostly were, yellow with time, and tattered with rough usage; and, in their best estate, the designs had been scratched rudely with pen and ink, on coarse paper, or, if drawn with charcoal or a pencil, were now half rubbed out.

You would not anywhere see rougher and homelier things than these. But this hasty rudeness made the sketches only the more valuable; because the artist seemed to have bestirred himself at the pinch of the moment, snatching up whatever material was nearest, so as to seize the first glimpse of an idea that might vanish in the twinkling of an eye. Thus, by the spell of a creased, soiled, and discolored scrap of paper, you were enabled to steal close to an old master, and watch him in the very effervescence of his genius.

—Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Marble Faun

Drawing: Rembrandt, Self-portrait, pen, brush and ink on paper, c. 1628

03 February 2014

A Novel Idea

How the diverse, contemporary and vulgar ended up becoming useful

In the thirteenth century Saint Bonaventure, a Franciscan monk, described four ways a person could make books: copy a work whole, copy from several works at once, copy an existing work with his own additions, or write out some of his own work with additions from elsewhere. Each of these categories had its own name, like scribe or author, but Bonaventure does not seem to have considered—and certainly didn’t describe—the possibility of anyone creating a wholly original work. In this period, very few books were in existence and a good number of them were copies of the Bible, so the idea of bookmaking was centered on re-creating and recombining existing works far more than on producing novel ones.

Movable type removed that bottleneck, and the first thing the growing cadre of European printers did was to print more Bibles—lots more Bibles. Printers began publishing Bibles translated into vulgar languages—contemporary languages other than Latin—because priests wanted them, not just as a convenience but as a matter of doctrine.

Then they began putting out new editions of works by Aristotle, Galen, Virgil, and others that had survived from antiquity. And still the presses could produce more.

The next move by the printers was at once simple and astonishing: print lots of new stuff. Prior to movable type, much of the literature available in Europe had been in Latin and was at least a millennium old. And then in a historical eyeblink, books started appearing in local languages, books whose text was months rather than centuries old, books that were, in aggregate, diverse, contemporary, and vulgar. Indeed, the word novel comes from this period, when newness of content was itself new.

—Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus

Painting: Laureano Barrau (1863–1957)