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Acrobatics continued

Before you read on, you may want to check out the previous post, which sets the stage – or the arena – for this quick rant on ancient and medieval acrobatics of reading.

The trapeze. The eye soars and swings in search of support. It finds grounding in text itself grounded in other text. The mind continues to soar from one meaning to another. Where we ordinarily have two levels of meaning, the literal and the figurative, the medievals identified four levels: those two, the figurative they called allegorical, then moral and anagogical. The latter two connected the mind to the ethical and apocalyptical (i.e. about the end of time) writings in Scripture. Reading was a constant negotiation of these meanings, the leap from one level to another, the discovery of new and renewed approaches.

Next, contortion. Text is all about mobility, transportation and transference. Words convey lots of things, ferry across expanses of space and time, bear loads. But the medieval book was a contortionist’s paradise. To save space and train the mind, scribes found innovative ways of abbreviating recurring text. The most forceful abbreviations were those for the most frequent words in a book. The modern ampersand, for instance, has almost completely lost all resemblance to the letters that produced it, e and t, making the Latin conjunction et, and, the word with the highest frequency in most texts. Packing the the two letters into a sign that can be written quickly and economically was a kind of violence done to the text, but one that liberated the eye and toned the mind.

Finally, the trampoline. One of the lost arts of medieval scholarship was the text commentary. Some educational traditions today still require students to provide a detailed analysis and commentary of a literary text in the form of a structured exposition, moving from the language used to the meaning conveyed, picking up all leveraged.references and citations. A springboard for reaching the text on different ways. The medieval commentary was the trampoline on which text was made to jump and reveal its different facets and lights.

The acrobatics of reading

Anju Dodiya’s struggle with books and reading as part of the Conversations On Tomorrow installation @Sadie Coles gallery Mayfair, London (visited this weekend)

To believe the meme wisdom of this age, there are very few things more enjoyable than cozying up with a book in bed, on the sofa, on the beach or even under the canopy ot a tropical forest. Reading is often am integral part of the New-Age lifestyle. Burning candles, soothing music and a hard copy.

But the physical and mental pleasure of leisurely reading a book is quite a recent thing. For centuries, reading was rather seen as a mental exercise, a spiritual workout, a cognitive bootcamp in search of resilience and character development.

For the ancients and the medievals, our pre-modern reading ancestors, picking up a book and staying with it was about the pursuit of virtue and the cultivation of the soul. And, for this very reason, it was a struggle. Reading was not a quiet activity, but a tormented acrobatic routine of the mind.

First, there was memory. The written word was always moveable type: data on the move, the constant transfer from the page to the storerooms of the mind. The premodern readers developed the most advanced techniques for memorising words, phrases, paragraphs, even entire chapters and books. Finding himself in prison in the 520 AD, Boethius, the last true ancient philosopher, wrote his age-shattering work The Consolation of Philosophy relying on hundreds of books he had read and memorised before his imprisonment. The flash disk of human memory.

Then, there was, as the medievals called it, rumination, ruminatio, the process of transforming the contents of the book into food for the mind and the soul, the stuff seen to be at the heart of what it is to be human and to pursue the human project, life in the city, for some, life before God, for others. For the premoderns, reading was not a casual activity, but the chewing, as the metaphor went, of wisdom for the benefit of the reader. Nutritious text nourishing the heart, metabolising into a mind- and soul-enriching experience. And, to believe the thinkers of that age, reading was more like chewing overboiled cuttlefish than mashed potatoes. Cognitive acrobatics resulting in a transformed mind and a matured soul.

In the next post, I will look at some of the manoeuvers involved. Stay tuned.

Canary in the mine

No matter how many times I hear it, I still won’t pay attention to it. I promise myself to keep an eye on it, to heed the warning, to consider the evidence for it. But I simply won’t remember. I will forget and I will err. Not on the side of caution, but in spite of early awareness and in open defiance of all caveats. Against caution.

Seneca expressed a wild hope, not an anthropological or philosophical truth, when he proclaimed, unreliably, that to err is human but to persevere is diabolical. And yet, the proverb is most often regarded as a reflection of human nature.

It is curious that the saying hasn’t been challenged or upgraded. A better, more accurate dictum should be, to err is human, but more human is to persevere. To forget, to enter the circle of the eternal return, the renewed, inescapable, mis-step.

We all make mistakes, and we all make them again and again. Don’t revolt against this indictment, you know you do.

The proverbial canary in the mine, the best known example of so-called sentinel species, animals who can warn humans of impending dangers, is, as far as I know, absent from mythology, despite the long history of mining and of humans using animals to improve their ability to control and respond to the environment.

Instead, Greek mythology give us a strange sentinel species, that of the Cassandra in the mine.

Cassandra was cursed by the god Apollo to tell the future but never to be believed. She foretold the fall of Troy, the cost of misguided action, the doom deep inside the horse, but in vain. Cassandra died with prophecy on her lips, and with a deaf audience around her.

Perfect accuracy operating in total ignorance. A figure of tragedy leaving tragedy in her wake. The canary that nobody paid any attention to. And the mines of the world collapsed on her and on those around her.

Holding the footnotes to the fire

There are words, gestures, behaviours and objects that indicate high status.

We all play the status game, negotiating symbols and status indices every moment of our lives. Even when we think we’re acting from a status-free mindset.

Books are no exceptions. There are low and high status markers from the first to the last cover. Books communicate as much as their makers, sellers and readers.

In the English-speaking bubble, the term non-fiction designates as many disparate genres such as political and social essay, popular history, philosophy-psychology, academic, criticism of all kinds, etc.

And unlike fiction, non-fiction books are confronted with the temptation of the status-rich footnote.

The role of footnotes is well-known. It is to provide the evidence, source, back story of a statement in the main text. Footnotes sit at the foot of the page and ground the claims in fact. Or at least they try.

Very few arguments worth considering and defending occur in a void. They grow in the shadow of past scholarship. The dwarf on the shoulder of giants. But even dwarfs have feet.

Footnotes offer both stability and mobility to an argument. They make it walk as well as stand upright. In the limelight of evidence, of course.

No true scholarship can do away with footnotes without sacrificing the clarity of the text and of the argument.

But often footnotes become branded items of high-status apparel. I’ve seen too many footnoted books that leverage the power of the footnote not to ironclad a claim, but to communicate something about the book itself – that by virtue of having footnotes, the argument is authoritative and worth considering, when in fact the footnotes bring little, if anything, to the table.

Footnoting is an art.

Too many footnotes are circular. They link to books and articles that make unsupported claims. Those footnotes are status markers, not markers of scholarship. They make a point, without adding to the line of attack. Their feet are not held to the fire.

And those books get away with a lot.

If footnotes are not required, as they often aren’t, then leave them out. But if they’re in,

Give the book another chance

When was the last time you read something your didn’t like but thought that if you should read it again, you might warm up to it, just one bit?

When’s the last time you gave a book, a poem, a text, another chance?

The best works of literature, and by that I mean the most enduring, the most influential, the least fading, have been those which were given a second chance. Where readers return, views change, patience prevails.

We’re transacting in an attention economy, which incentivizes first glances and permanent verdicts, no looking back. There is scarcely time to look around past the first row, the first Pagerank lineup, let alone behind and again. It is the reader’s existential crisis, a sense that a blink of an eye is not enough and yet that’s all there is.

For a reader, FOMO, the fear of missing out, declines in the oblique case of fear of looking again, the angst that giving a book extra time removes other rewards down the road, other books that may never be opened.

And yet, that’s where the magic is, in revisiting, in insisting, in grappling with unyielding texts, in pushing and pulling, knocking on the door again and again.

Giving a book another chance is giving oneself another chance to be transported, to start an unsuspected journey, to challenge one’s own views about what the outcome might be. It is a way of stepping into the unknown, a sea of possibilities lying within reach, and yet beyond.

Books are fixed reference points. But engaging with them alters the reader as much as the book, giving the latter a new lease of life, a new beginning.

A question of perspective

The objects in the mirror of history appear bigger than they are.

History is the world’s largest distorting lens. And the most powerful telescope. Looking back across the curvature of time and meaning, far into the roots of human experience. And the light that comes to us is as refracted as it is brilliant.

The power of hindsight is immensely underrated. Nothing acquires significance unless revisited, recalled, recorded.

What does it mean? Nothing, of course, until subjected to the backward glance.

To be human is to be reflective. To be reflective is to be historical.

Herodotus, the father of history, didn’t write his Histories as history, which didn’t mean much to him as a concept. Ἱστορία, Historía, the ancient Greek title of his work, really meant ‘inquiries’, explorations, research. That is, the light of the recorded past reflected, refracted through the lens of the subjective, inquisitive observer.

History as an intellectual pursuit was born as an exercise in distortion. By no means do I mean it disparagingly. It was born as an experiment in perspectivising. A foregrounding of ambient noise, the noise of the past, against the background of more noise. And as such, history knows no end, not because time is open – until it ceases to be -, but because it is refractable, open to endless possibilities of interpretation, forever reimagined and rediscoverable.

And what if each of us were the world’s greatest prism, throwing off light in a billion ways, illuminating our scene, ourselves and each other? Wouldn’t that be something?

For your eyes only

I can listen to the radio and do something else at the same time. I can watch TV, in streaming or live, and I can do something else at the same time. While not focused 100% on the transmission, I can still get something out of it, even if I cook, hoover, chat with friends at the same time.

But when I sit down with a book, I can’t do anything else at the same time. Anything below 100% focus means nothing to me. My eyes move across and down the page, but I end up with absolutely nothing unless I do nothing else at the same time.

Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong and other anthropologists of the written word have pointed out that reading is not just another way of ‘hearing’ or ‘seeing’, but a completely different kind of encounter, sui generis and in its own league, fundamentally different from all other types of cognition.

There are few other more forcibly lonely and intimate activities than silent reading, which is how we moderns do it. In history, silent reading is a recent arrival, though for the reader, whether alone in the room or in front of an audience, reciting from memory or reading from a piece of paper, the written word has always been a self-reflecting echo, shot out but not going anywhere, boomeranging its way back to the reader, trapped in the gravitational pull of the scanning eyes.

The word exists for your eyes only. To share it is to share oneself, to lend a piece of yourself with interest, hoping that the returns will return the word home, multiplied, enriched, like a radioactive isotope, glowing and unpredictable.

Vocabularies of vagueness

Linguists assure us that languages tend towards more precision and economy.

One word is better than two, it takes less time and effort. Short is sweet. Less is more.

Focused words hit better targets. Language is verbal archery. Higher precision is a strategic objective.

And yet we indulge in verbal vagueness. We immerse ourselves in equivocation, multiplying the foreground noise of our utterances.

What do the words ‘sociable’, ‘creative’ or ‘leader’ mean? We use such words to say something, but it is not always clear what. We’ve never used more words to say so little, when it should be the other way around.

One of the most significant philosophical works, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is, in its English translation and despite its pompous title, 75-pages long and takes about 30 minutes to read.

Why do we fear silence, the spaces between meaning, the void among the stars?

Among the things we sacralise, language is rarely there. We either resign ourselves to its self-regulation or we seek to box it in, shape and deshape it to fit our whims and wild delusions.

Ideas are usually simple, and they thrive through their simplicity and lapidarity. The most eternal truths are one-word utterances or single-line statements. The rest is noise, distracting and derailing.

Building roads

Isidore of Seville (7th century AD) dividing his work ‘Etymologies‘ into books, France, Amiens, Bibliothèques d’Amiens Métropole, Ms. 108 f. 246v

Most scribes and copyists working in the medieval period had no idea how critical their work was. They accepted the ordeal of writing millions of words by hand, day in and day out, but they don’t seem to have had the awareness of what they were accomplishing beyond the task at hand.

In the flickering light of the scribal workshop or scriptorium, the battle for the past, present and future of the West was being waged. The literary, philosophical, historical and scientific legacy of the ancient world was hanging by a thread. As far as we know, nobody told the scribes that their work was keeping the West alive, the lifeline of the written word. That the letters they filled animal skins with were bridging worlds, laying tracks in the dust of uncharted territory. Not so much clearing than connecting.

To make a book was to build a road across space and time, to claim the past not so much as one’s own than as a rescue mission in need of deployment, to ensure the safety of the cultural capital flowing up and down the byway.

But no, the mission was successful without the stakeholders becoming aware of its success. It proved a triumph in the long haul, though few, if any, involved in it had any idea what they were doing. With humility, they would’ve answered that they were simply copying books. Why, because they could. And once they started, they couldn’t, and shouldn’t, stop. To the benefit of a continent. Unbeknownst to their leaders or to themselves.

All things being equal

For most of us most of the time, life is a series of back to back meetings. No time for focused work.

The gaps in between, where they occur, are merely time to prepare for the next meeting. The majority of meetings shouldn’t have been scheduled at all. They are a waste of time. Of very limited time. The only true commodity – unrecoverable, unrenewable energy. Precious. And yet, so underrated, to the point of complete neglect.

As it is slowly running out, it is easy to think the tank doesn’t ever get empty. Until it’s empty, and there’s nothing further to be done about it.

The biggest trick is to delude ourselves that there are more important things to do, as though everything else is ceteris paribus. All things being equal. But they are not. Time is not equal, nor is opportunity, context or people.

It is not surprising that the oldest philosophical insights come in an antinomical form. Everything is permanent, immovable, while everything is nevertheless in motion. The stars are fixed, but panta rhei, all things flow, nothing stays the same. At the same time. The major traditions of thought have long zeroed in on the real target. Will we pull the trigger? Will we keep the tension between the two poles, never giving up on either? Will we subscribe to both without fear of contradiction?

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