Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Middlemarch

The private eyes of culture

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Yesterday, in my post on the late magician Ricky Jay, I neglected to mention one of the most fascinating aspects of his long career. Toward the end of his classic profile in The New Yorker, Mark Singer drops an offhand reference to an intriguing project:

Most afternoons, Jay spends a couple of hours in his office, on Sunset Boulevard, in a building owned by Andrew Solt, a television producer…He decided now to drop by the office, where he had to attend to some business involving a new venture that he has begun with Michael Weber—a consulting company called Deceptive Practices, Ltd., and offering “Arcane Knowledge on a Need to Know Basis.” They are currently working on the new Mike Nichols film, Wolf, starring Jack Nicholson.

When the article was written, Deceptive Practices was just getting off the ground, but it went on to compile an enviable list of projects, including The Illusionist, The Prestige, and most famously Forrest Gump, for which Jay and Weber designed the wheelchair that hid Gary Sinise’s legs. It isn’t clear how lucrative the business ever was, but it made for great publicity, and best of all, it allowed Jay to monetize the service that he had offered for free to the likes of David Mamet—a source of “arcane knowledge,” much of it presumably gleaned from his vast reading in the field, that wasn’t available in any other way.

As I reflected on this, I was reminded of another provider of arcane knowledge who figures prominently in one of my favorite novels. In Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, the narrator, Casaubon, comes home to Milan after a long sojourn abroad feeling like a man without a country. He recalls:

I decided to invent a job for myself. I knew a lot of things, unconnected things, but I wanted to be able to connect them after a few hours at a library. I once thought it was necessary to have a theory, and that my problem was that I didn’t. But nowadays all you needed was information; everybody was greedy for information, especially if it was out of date. I dropped in at the university, to see if I could fit in somewhere. The lecture halls were quiet; the students glided along the corridors like ghosts, lending one another badly made bibliographies. I knew how to make a good bibliography.

In practice, Casaubon finds that he knows a lot of things—like the identities of such obscure figures as Lord Chandos and Anselm of Canterbury—that can’t be found easily in reference books, prompting a student to marvel at him: “In your day you knew everything.” This leads Casaubon to a sudden inspiration: “I had a trade after all. I would set up a cultural investigation agency, be a kind of private eye of learning. Instead of sticking my nose into all-night dives and cathouses, I would skulk around bookshops, libraries, corridors of university departments…I was lucky enough to find two rooms and a little kitchen in an old building in the suburbs…In a pair of bookcases I arranged the atlases, encyclopedias, catalogs I acquired bit by bit.”

This feels a little like the fond daydream of a scholar like Umberto Eco himself, who spent decades acquiring arcane knowledge—not all of it required by his academic work—before becoming a famous novelist. And I suspect that many graduate students, professors, and miscellaneous bibliophiles cherish the hope that the scraps of disconnected information that they’ve accumulated over time will turn out to be useful one day, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. (Casaubon is evidently named after the character from Middlemarch who labors for years over a book titled The Key to All Mythologies, which is already completely out of date.) To illustrate what he does for a living, Casaubon offers the example of a translator who calls him one day out of the blue, desperate to know the meaning of the word “Mutakallimūn.” Casaubon asks him for two days, and then he gets to work:

I go to the library, flip through some card catalogs, give the man in the reference office a cigarette, and pick up a clue. That evening I invite an instructor in Islamic studies out for a drink. I buy him a couple of beers and he drops his guard, gives me the lowdown for nothing. I call the client back. “All right, the Mutakallimūn were radical Moslem theologians at the time of Avicenna. They said the world was a sort of dust cloud of accidents that formed particular shapes only by an instantaneous and temporary act of the divine will. If God was distracted for even a moment, the universe would fall to pieces, into a meaningless anarchy of atoms. That enough for you? The job took me three days. Pay what you think is fair.”

Eco could have picked nearly anything to serve as a case study, of course, but the story that he choses serves as a metaphor for one of the central themes of the book. If the world of information is a “meaningless anarchy of atoms,” it takes the private eyes of culture to give it shape and meaning.

All the while, however, Eco is busy undermining the pretensions of his protagonists, who pay a terrible price for treating information so lightly. And it might not seem that such brokers of arcane knowledge are even necessary these days, now that an online search generates pages of results for the Mutakallimūn. Yet there’s still a place for this kind of scholarship, which might end up being the last form of brainwork not to be made obsolete by technology. As Ricky Jay knew, by specializing deeply in one particular field, you might be able to make yourself indispensable, especially in areas where the knowledge hasn’t been written down or digitized. (In the course of researching Astounding, I was repeatedly struck by how much of the story wasn’t available in any readily accessible form. It was buried in letters, manuscripts, and other primary sources, and while this happens to be the one area where I’ve actually done some of the legwork, I have a feeling that it’s equally true of every other topic imaginable.) As both Jay and Casaubon realized, it’s a role that rests on arcane knowledge of the kind that can only be acquired by reading the books that nobody else has bothered to read in a long time, even if it doesn’t pay off right away. Casaubon tells us: “In the beginning, I had to turn a deaf ear to my conscience and write theses for desperate students. It wasn’t hard; I just went and copied some from the previous decade. But then my friends in publishing began sending me manuscripts and foreign books to read—naturally, the least appealing and for little money.” But he perseveres, and the rule that he sets for himself might still be enough, if you’re lucky, to fuel an entire career:

Still, I was accumulating experience and information, and I never threw anything away…I had a strict rule, which I think secret services follow, too: No piece of information is superior to any other. Power lies in having them all on file and then finding the connections.

Written by nevalalee

November 27, 2018 at 8:41 am

Anthony Grafton and the future of the book

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On Saturday, my wife and I were lucky enough to see Anthony Grafton, the Princeton professor and historian of ideas, speak at an event sponsored by the Chicago Humanities Festival. Grafton is something like the American Umberto Eco, a scholar of enormous diligence and erudition who is also humorous, approachable, and deeply concerned with the perspectives his academic work affords on the culture around him. (I’d also love to see him write a historical thriller, preferably with Sue Grafton.) His talk, “The Book: Past, Present, and Future,” was larded with fascinating tidbits—like the fact that the Vatican Library used to lend books with chains attached, to remind the borrowers to return them, or that the London Review of Books has seen the length of its submissions increase by forty percent since the invention of word processing—but it was also characterized by a passionate interest in what the future holds for the book itself, especially for scholars.

Grafton’s perspective is particularly worth hearing because he’s a great reader and explorer of libraries, rather like one of his favorite objects of study, the Renaissance philologist Isaac Casaubon. Casaubon (who inspired the names of lead characters in both Middlemarch and Foucault’s Pendulum) was arguably the most learned man of his time, and for him, reading was a sacramental act: he combed his hair before ascending to his study to read, usually for hours each day, and may have died from an enlarged bladder caused by extended periods of sitting. (An engraving of Casaubon’s bladder, a slide of which Grafton cheerfully displayed, is included as an illustration in his collected works.) And Grafton’s own research has some of the same obsessiveness: he reconstructed Casaubon’s library, which had been dispersed across the collection of British Museum, by the expedient method of requesting every copy of every book published before Casaubon’s death, opening it up, and looking at it.

Listening to Grafton, I found myself wondering whether this kind of reading and scholarship will survive my own lifetime. I’ve spoken at length about my love of physical books, but one thing I haven’t talked about is how books themselves constitute a kind of living history. The underlinings and other marks left on a book’s pages preserve part of the reader himself, like a mosquito in amber: Casaubon’s marginalia, for instance, are legendary, as are Coleridge’s and Mark Twain’s, not to mention Fermat’s. The books that a reader owns gradually become an extension of his body and mind. And it’s reasonable to worry about how much we lose when an author’s notes, manuscripts, and correspondence—and even much of his reading—have migrated online. Much of what we know about someone like Casaubon, like his interest in Hebrew, are thanks to notes and jottings that have survived by accident. And it’s going to be very hard for such things to accidentally survive in the future.

Grafton is particularly eloquent, and urgent, on the ephemerality of our web-based culture. He laments the end of GeoCities, with its gloriously ugly webpages that nonetheless represent an important part of the history of the Internet, all of which are gone—the original hard drives have been erased and overwritten. In response to a question from an audience member, he also pointed out that archival material of the kind we’re used to seeing for contemporary writers—the fascinating volumes of correspondence for authors as different as Margaret Mitchell and Saul Bellow—may no longer exist. It’s true, as Grafton says, that the Ransom Center in Texas has started to collect hard drives as well as literary archives, but a great deal of material will be lost as discs age, formats die out, and operating systems change. In the future, I hope, we’ll still have scholars like Grafton, laboriously going over the literary remnants of authors from our own time. But what will be left for them to find?

Written by nevalalee

April 4, 2012 at 9:59 am

The work of a lifetime

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Yesterday I finally got around to reading Rebecca Mead’s New Yorker piece on Middlemarch—by all odds the most intelligent novel ever written—and its influence on her own life. If you’re a subscriber, Mead’s article is well worth reading in full (especially for her discussion of an inspirational quotation inexplicably misattributed to George Eliot, a subject on which I have some strong opinions), but I was struck in particular by her thoughts on how her attitudes toward the book have changed over time. Mead writes:

I have gone back to Middlemarch every five years or so, my emotional response to it evolving at each revisiting. In my judgmental twenties, I thought that Ladislaw, with his brown curls and his callow artistic dabbling, was not entirely deserving of Dorothea; by forty, I could better measure the appeal of his youthful energies and Byronic hairdressing, at least to his middle-aged creator, who was fifty-three when the book was published.

This, of course, is the measure of a great work of art: its ability to reveal new perspectives as we approach it at different times in our lives. Most of us, I imagine, have a book or movie or album that serves as a similar sort of milestone, with our evolving feelings toward it charting how much we ourselves have changed. For Roger Ebert, it’s Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. In an article first published two years ago, he writes:

In 1962, Marcello Mastroianni represented everything I dreamed of attaining…Ten years later, he represented what I had become, at least to the degree that Chicago offered the opportunities of Rome. Ten years after that, in 1982, he was what I had escaped from, after I stopped drinking too much and burning the candle at both ends.

And now Ebert has left the movie behind entirely. Recently, he wrote movingly of the fact that he will no longer be able to discuss the film shot by shot at the Conference on World Affairs at Boulder, as he’s done on four separate occasions, and concludes:

Well, now I’ve outlasted Marcello. I’ve come out the other side. He is still standing on the beach, unable to understand the gestures of the sweet blond girl who was his waitress at the restaurant, that day he was going to start his novel. He shakes his head resignedly and turns to walk back into the trees and she looks after him wistfully. I am in the trees with Marcello.

As for the equivalent work in my own life, I’m tempted to say that it’s the Pet Shop Boys album Actually, which has slipped imperceptibly from the imagined soundtrack of my adulthood to a reminder of a period I’ve already left behind. Or perhaps it’s The Phantom Tollbooth, which has evolved, as I’ve grown older, from escapist fantasy to handbook for adult life to the book that I’m most looking forward to giving to my own children. I suspect, though, that it might actually be Citizen Kane, which I once saw as a challenge and call to art, and which currently seems—now that I’m five years older than Welles was—more like a warning, or a rebuke. Or perhaps all of the above. What about you?

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