Following the three last articles in which I was preparing my reference texts in addition of those that I have been already writing in the past, this following article is an attempt to reconstitute the small presentation I was kindly invited to give by Carla Leitão for her seminar about libraries and archives at Pratt Institute. This talk was trying to elaborate a small theory of the book as a subversive artifact based on six literary authors that have in common a dramatization of their own medium, the book, within their books. The predicate of this essay lies in the fact that books are indeed subversive -and therefore suppressed by authoritarian power- as they reveal the existence of other worlds.
In his series Julius Corentin Acquefacques, prisonnier des rêves, Marc-Antoine Mathieu continuously explores and questions graphic novel as the medium he uses for his narratives to exist, and therefore to acquire a certain autonomy as soon as they have been created. In reusing the constructive elements of drawings within the narrative (preparatory sketches, vanishing points, framing bars, anamorphoses etc.) he creates several layers of universes that include our own, and therefore makes us wonder if our reality couldn’t be the fiction of a higher degree of reality.
It is not innocent that he uses the terminology of the dream to bases his stories as dreams constitute the daily experience we make of another world within the world. The nightmare here, is based on the impossibility for the main character, Julius Corentin Acquefacques to distinguish what is dream, what is his reality, what is the reality of those other worlds he can see for short instants and eventually what is the reality of his creator, the author himself.
In The Trial written by Franz Kafka and published in 1929, the book as an artifact is not literally present. However, the existence of other worlds within the narrative can be found in the fact that the version we know is the one assembled by Kafka’s best friend, Max Brod who re-assembled the chapters of the unachieved book according to his own interpretation and on the contrary of his friend’s wishes who wanted it to be burnt. Brod, in a research for rationality starts the narrative by the scene in which K., the protagonist, learns that he will be judged for something he ignores, continues it by K.’s experience of the administrative labyrinth and eventually finishes it by K.’s execution. In Towards a Minor Literature, Felix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze criticize this order, cannot seem to accept that such chapter about K.’s death has been written by Kafka and eventually consider that this event is nothing more than an additional part of the character’s delirium or dream within the story. As I have been writing before in an essay entitled The Kafkian Immanent Labyrinth as a Post-Mortem Dream, my own interpretation consists in starting with this ‘last’ chapter in which K. is executed, thus attributing the following delirium to the visions that K. experiences before dying. In other words, K. never really dies for himself even though he dies in the point of view of others, of course (to read more about this topic read also my review of Gaspard Noe’s Enter the Void). His perception of time exponentially decelerates tending more and more towards the exact moment of his death without ever reaching it: this is the Kafkian nightmare.
The fact that one can counts three (and probably so many more) ways of assembling the ten chapters written by Kafka make the book itself a labyrinth allowing the existence of several parallel worlds which all share the same composing elements but presents different essences of meaning.
illustration by Erick Desmazieres
Jorge Luis Borges, whose filiation with Kafka is not to be demonstrated, is also well known for his quasi-Leibnizian (see previous article) invention of an infinity of parallel worlds through books. The Library of Babel (see previous post) is the most famous example as it introduces an infinite library containing every unique books that can be written in 410 pages with 25 symbols. At the end of this short story, Borges precises that this library could be in fact, contained in a single book which will be introduced later on in The Book of Sand (see the recent post about it): a book with an infinity of pages.
What is to be found in infinity seems to be indicated in the story The Secret Miracle (1943) in the following excerpt that could easily be used to essentialize Borges’ work and life:
Toward dawn he dreamed that he had concealed himself in one of the naves of the Clementine Library. A librarian wearing dark glasses asked him: “What are you looking for?” Hladik answered: “I am looking for God.” The librarian said to him: “God is in one of the letters on one of the pages of one of the four hundred thousand volumes of the Clementine. My fathers and the fathers of my fathers have searched for this letter; I have grown blind seeking it.”
in Labyrinths. New York: New Directions Book, 1962.
Many Borges’ readers will indeed know that himself lost his sight few decades after he wrote this story. What was this God that he was looking for in the many book of Buenos Aires’ National Library? Which kind of Kaballah did he create to find an esoteric meaning in the mathematics of the profane scriptures? Maybe did he have a glance to this infinity that he has been chanting for many years and became blind as a price to pay for it.
It is in fact, one thing to comprehend the infinity of contingencies that Borges presents, but it is another one to fathom it fully. Such transcendental understanding could indeed correspond to an encounter with what deserve to be called God. Borges gives us the chance, one more time, to experience such encounter through his story The Garden of Forking Paths (1941) which dramatizes a book in which the infinite combination of worlds constituted by a given sum of events since the dawn of times exists in parallel of each other:
“Here is Ts’ui Pên’s labyrinth,” he said, indicating a tall lacquered desk.
“An ivory labyrinth!” I exclaimed. “A minimum labyrinth.”
“A labyrinth of symbols,” he corrected. “An invisible labyrinth of time. To me, a barbarous Englishman, has been entrusted the revelation of this diaphanous mystery. After more than a hundred years, the details are irretrievable; but it is not hard to conjecture what happened. Ts’ui Pe must have said once: I am withdrawing to write a book. And another time: I am withdrawing to construct a labyrinth. Every one imagined two works; to no one did it occur that the book and the maze were one and the same thing. The Pavilion of the Limpid Solitude stood in the center of a garden that was perhaps intricate; that circumstance could have suggested to the heirs a physical labyrinth. Ts’ui Pên died; no one in the vast territories that were his came upon the labyrinth; the confusion of the novel suggested to me that it was the maze. Two circumstances gave me the correct solution of the problem. One: the curious legend that Ts’ui Pên had planned to create a labyrinth which would be strictly infinite. The other: a fragment of a letter I discovered.”
Albert rose. He turned his back on me for a moment; he opened a drawer of the black and gold desk. He faced me and in his hands he held a sheet of paper that had once been crimson, but was now pink and tenuous and cross-sectioned. The fame of Ts’ui Pên as a calligrapher had been justly won. I read, uncomprehendingly and with fervor, these words written with a minute brush by a man of my blood: I leave to the various futures (not to all) my garden of forking paths. Wordlessly, I returned the sheet.
in Labyrinths. New York: New Directions Book, 1962.
In 1962, Philip K. Dick writes a novel entitled The Man in the High Castle (see previous article) which dramatizes an uchronia for which Roosevelt died before ending his first mandate of President of the USA, replaced by an isolationist President who refuses to engage his county in the second World War. It results from this choice that the Nazis conquest Europe while the Japanese army colonizes East Asia (including Siberia) and eventually both combine their forces to invade the USA. Dick’s plot thus occurs in United States under nippo-nazi domination in which it is said to exist a book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy written by a certain Hawthorne Abendsen who would describe in it a world in which the Allies won the over against the Axis. The book is, of course, forbidden as it allows the depiction of another reality than the one which is imposed by colonial empires:
At the bookcase she knelt. ‘Did you read this?’ she asked, taking a book out. Nearsightedly he peered. Lurid cover. Novel. ‘No,’ he said. ‘My wife got that. She reads a lot.’
‘You should read it.’
Still feeling disappointed, he grabbed the book, glanced at it. The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. ‘Isn’t this one of those banned-in-Boston books?’ he said.
‘Banned through the United States. And in Europe, of course.’ She had gone to the hall door and stood there now, waiting.
‘I’ve heard of this Hawthorne Abendsen.’ But actually he had not. All he could recall about the book was — what? That it was very popular right now. Another fad. Another mass craze. He bent down and stuck it back in the shelf. ‘I don’t have time to read popular fiction. I’m too busy with work.’ Secretaries, he thought acidly, read that junk, at home alone in bed at night. It stimulates them. Instead of the real thing. Which they’re afraid of. But of course really crave.
The Man in the High Castle. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1962.
The ban of books depicted in Dick’s uchronia brings us to worlds in which books have been definitely suppressed from society. In the well known 1984, written in 1949 by Georges Orwell, the only remaining book is the dictionary of the Newspeak which, editions by editions becomes thinner and thinner as the language is subjected by a strict progressive purge. Language, indeed, allows the formulation of other worlds which can be punished as thoughtcrimes. The Book is therefore not destroyed literally but its principal material is voluntarily put in scarcity.
‘The Eleventh Edition is the definitive edition,’ he said. ‘We’re getting the language into its final shape — the shape it’s going to have when nobody speaks anything else. When we’ve finished with it, people like you will have to learn it all over again. You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words — scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone. The Eleventh Edition won’t contain a single word that will become obsolete before the year 2050.’
He bit hungrily into his bread and swallowed a couple of mouthfuls, then continued speaking, with a sort of pedant’s passion. His thin dark face had become animated, his eyes had lost their mocking expression and grown almost dreamy.
‘It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take “good”, for instance. If you have a word like “good”, what need is there for a word like “bad”? “Ungood” will do just as well — better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of “good”, what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like “excellent” and “splendid” and all the rest of them? “Plusgood” covers the meaning, or “doubleplusgood” if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already. but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words — in reality, only one word. Don’t you see the beauty of that, Winston? It was B.B.’s idea originally, of course,’ he added as an afterthought.
1984. New York : Signet Classics, 1949
The quintessential narrative dramatizing the destruction of books is of course Fahrenheit 451 (see the recent article about it) written by Ray Bradbury in 1953. In this story, firemen are not people in charge of fighting against fire, but on the contrary, those in charge of inflaming books that have been banned as principal element of discord and inequality within society. Fahrenheit 451 (233 degrees Celsius) is indeed the temperature for which paper burns. Books are thus the object that allows the various human writings to remain archived for virtually eternity but which allow carry with them, their own fragility as their main material, paper, is vulnerable to the elements and fire in particular. Francois Truffaut, who released an excellent film adaptation of Bradbury’s novel in 1966, by showing a copy of Mein Kampf in his movie, did not miss to point out that a resistance movement that would undertake to save the books from fire could not possibly judge which books deserved to be kept and which one could be let to the institutional purge.
In the theater play Almansor that he wrote in 1820, Heinrich Heine makes the following tragic prophecy: Where we burn books, we will end up burning men. On May 10th 1933, the Nazis who recently reached the head of the executive and legislative power in Germany will burn thousands of books including Heine’s, which do not fit within the spirit of the new antisemitic/anti-communist politics they are willing to undertake. About a decade later, they will industrially kill eleven millions people (including six millions Jews) in what remains as the darkest moment of mankind’s history: the Holocaust.
Among the books burned in 1933, one could find the ones written by Marx, Freud, Brecht, Benjamin, Einstein, Kafka but also one of the father of science fiction, HG Wells. This last example illustrates well the will of the third Reich to annihilate any vision of the future that was not compliant with the one elaborated by the Nazis.
In latin, book burning ceremonies are called autodafé from Portuguese Acto da Fé (literally act of faith). Autodafé were common during the Spanish and Portuguese inquisition during the medieval era. Indeed, books listed in the Catholic Index (the list of books forbidden by the Church) and heretics were burned indistinctly in vast rituals of authoritarian religion. In 1933, this act of faith had been elaborated by Joseph Goebbels, minister of propaganda of the Reich and accomplished with great enthusiasm by hordes of students who collected and confiscated the books that have been listed as subversive. An important element in the principal autodafé of May 10th 1933 in Berlin was that the rain was preventing the flames to burn the book in such a way that firemen had to pour gasoline on the aggregation of books to set them ablaze. This significant ‘detail’ had probably a great influence on Bradbury in the elaboration of his narrative.
The books are therefore agents of infection in the point of view of an authoritarian ideological power. Their authors place in them the germs of subversion that are then spread to whoever read them. Knowledge is power as Foucault was insisting, imagination is, in fact, power to the same extent. The virtual access to other worlds via books is the possibility of a resistance in this given reality. For that, books have to be salvaged at any price. They constitute the archives of a civilization as much as they are the active agents of vitalization of a society that accepts the multiplicity of their narratives.