Character Building

Peter Campbell

  • Black Riders: The Visible Language of Modernity by Jerome McGann
    Princeton, 196 pp, £25.00, July 1993, ISBN 0 691 06985 9
  • Letters from the People by Lee Friedlander
    Cape, 96 pp, £75.00, August 1993, ISBN 0 224 03295 X
  • Margins and Marginality by Evelyn Tribble
    Virginia, 194 pp, $35.00, December 1993, ISBN 0 8139 1472 8

Books, too, have a body language. But does the way they are physically presented impinge in any significant way on the texts they contain? Jerome McGann reckons that the private press movement (William Morris and his followers) was an agent in the rise of Modernist poetry, and goes on to make large claims for the ability of poetry in the Modernist tradition to unknot linguistic and philosophical binds.

His line of argument is skittish – he breaks into it from time to time with asterisked objections which, alas, are not always the ones you would wish to raise yourself – but two substantial, linked claims are made unequivocally. The first is that the 19th-century renaissance of printing signalled a change in sensibility which placed a value on the physical appearance of books, and thus on the meaning of the look of printed words. McGann says that this objectification of the word has links with the poetry of Pound and Yeats. The Kelmscott Chaucer and Modernist poetry, the argument goes, are both hard to read because they are intentionally opaque. The second claim is that the links are not coincidental, and that the achievement of the latter was, in important ways, made possible by the former.

Heraldic words, words as patterns, have a long history. Inscriptions give dignity to words by slowing reading to a dead-march beat. The narcotic interlacings of an initial in the Lindisfarne Gospels delay the eye’s progress until the letter, like a word repeated over and over, loses its significance and drops out of the alphabet altogether. Carried to its extreme this can lead to the eating of written charms for their medicinal properties and books which are monuments. The reductio ad absurdum of the tendency is to be found in the nightmarish statistics of Anselm Kiefer’s sculpture The High Priestess. It consists of approximately two hundred lead books each with up to fifty lead leaves and weighing anything up to 220 pounds. Some pages are randomly stained like old plaster, some contain photographs. The whole library is contained in two vast steel bookcases measuring 14 feet by 26 feet. This is the end of the road which begins with the Kelmscott Chaucer and runs on through the heavy-paper pages and folio formats of the livres d’artiste of the 20th century.

Book fetishism came naturally to private-press printers. For them the exciting thing was the physical book, not the text. They modelled their productions on examples from printing’s pre-demotic years. When such a weight of ink and paper is dedicated to any text which fails to take itself very seriously it is liable to seem a slightly absurd enterprise: a lectern Bible perhaps, but a lectern novel? The book made to be read, on the other hand, seems to say: We are alone, you and I. Writing and print are messengers. No more than that. A true text can have many manifestations, do not bother too much about the livery of the messenger.

When, now and again, an author does allude to the look of a page (Lewis Carroll’s ‘Mouse’s Tale’, Sterne’s marbled interfoliations) it is intended to be cheeky – as a flunky, standing behind the speaker’s chair at a grand dinner, would sound if invited to interject. Typography, the advocates of transparency argue, should aim, like the puppeteer’s strings, to support and articulate without drawing attention to itself. When the characters of the alphabet become Characters, as they do in Lee Friedlander’s truly wonderful Letters from the People, a saturnalian role reversal takes place and Master Meaning waits upon Servant Style.

Why do literary texts suppress the graphic potential of letters? Why not go for a synaesthetic double whammy; why not a text in which printed word as thing and printed word as sign get our visual and verbal receptors vibrating in harmony? Why (lack of talent apart) have more people not done what Blake did? Put his graphic versions of his poems alongside printed versions and the reason becomes clear:

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

The poem gains when printed plain. The richly dressed text, to the frustration of the world’s private-press printers, illustrators and calligraphers, is set stumbling by the weight of its clothing. The aesthete may be charmed, but readers qua readers look only for puritan neatness. Billboards and headlines catch the eye, but if you want more than a few sentences to be read you had best turn to anaesthetic greyness and deny the eye its desire to find visual amusement in the look of words. Even among graffiti-makers the distinction between the decorative tag and the readable slogan is clear.

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