Essence of Milton
The strangest parcel I’ve received in the post recently is a plain black box about the size of a paperback. It doesn’t contain a book, though, or at least not at first sight. Instead there is another, smaller box labelled ‘Milton’, which opens to reveal a row of delicate, inch-tall glass vessels, each with around ten white pills in it. There is no explanation, but the accompanying photographs tell the story. In one, against a plain background, is a quotation from Milton’s Areopagitica:
Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.
The other four images document what looks like a demented science experiment. A battered Everyman edition of Milton’s collected works is immersed in a jar of fluid, becoming soggy and misshapen. Some of the liquid is then extracted by pipette and transferred it onto the pills.
It’s the work of the artist and writer Stephen Emmerson, who has some serious form when it comes to book destruction. He’s grown mushrooms on Rilke’s poetry, and sanded and painted E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. But his specialism is ‘pharmacopoetics’ (or ‘pill poems to be swallowed with a glass of water’), based on a homeopathic principle. He soaks books in water to extract their essence, then infuses a sugar pill with the solution. Miraculous effects are promised: as the pill dissolves under your tongue, ‘you will be able to write like Emily Dickinson, William Wordsworth, Lucy Harvest Clarke, John Berryman and many others.’ For his performance piece Pill Poem, Emmerson asked audience members to swallow a capsule with the word ‘poem’ on it, then stare a blank sheet of paper. In Placebo Exhibition, participants were asked to take a pill, then led into an empty space and out again.
Emmerson clearly enjoys playing absurdist games with the pretensions of literature and art. But there’s a special irony in subjecting Milton to this treatment, since it takes the poet at his word, turning his metaphorical talk of essences and vials into something weirdly literal. Areopagitica, a pamphlet published in 1644, at the height of the Civil War, is an anti-censorship polemic that equates the destruction of books not only with the destruction of ideas, but with the murder of their authors: ‘As good almost kill a man as a good book.’ The rhetoric may be a bit overblown (and that ‘almost’ is doing a lot of work), but it’s a familiar idea. In destroying a book you’re not simply obliterating the paper, ink and board, but something more numinous. ‘He who destroys a good book,’ Milton wrote, ‘kills reason itself.’
Squeamishness about the destruction of books often revolves around their dual identity. The book is two things in one: a strange Janus-faced meeting of container and content. Emmerson has fun prising the two apart. What if you really did extract a book’s essence? his work asks. What if we literally enacted other bookish tropes about reading as ‘consuming’ or ‘devouring’? What would happen if you took at face value the supposed therapeutic effects of books? The result is a comical anti-alchemy that reduces the lofty idea of literature’s essence to an icky mess of congealed and sodden pages, or a bottle of dubious-looking pills. Videos of Emmerson’s performances show bemused audience members being plied with homeopoetry. Some, understandably, seem reluctant. What would this homeopathic dose of Milton achieve? What effects would it have and what ailments would it remedy? Before lockdown is over, I may yet open the vials and find out.