Concini and the Squirrel

Peter Campbell

  • Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos
    135 pp, £12.95, November 1989, ISBN 0 670 83008 9
  • The Culture of Print edited by Roger Chartier
    351 pp, £35.00, September 1989, ISBN 0 7456 0575 3
  • Symbols of Ideal Life by Maren Stange
    Cambridge, 190 pp, £25.00, June 1989, ISBN 0 521 32441 6
  • The Lines of My Hand by Robert Frank
    £30.00, September 1989, ISBN 0 436 16256 3

In Innumeracy, a sane, amusing, unintimidating introduction to the consequences of mathematical illiteracy, John Allen Paulos shows how a little arithmetic can cast light on the cohesiveness of cultures. He quotes an experiment in which the psychologist Stanley Milgrim gave each member of a randomly-selected group of people a document and a ‘target individual’ to whom the document was to be transmitted:

The directions were that each individual was to send the document to the person he knew who was most likely to know the target individual and that he was to direct that person to do the same, until the target individual was reached. Milgrim found that the number of intermediate links ranged from two to ten, with five being the most common number .... This study goes some way toward explaining how confidential information, rumours and jokes percolate so rapidly through a population.

It also goes some way towards suggesting how a large group can change its collective mind like a flock of starlings turning on the wing. On this model one would expect the members of human communities to have much in common, and each brain, like a fragment of a shattered hologram plate, to be capable of generating blurred but essentially complete pictures of a whole society.

If change does take place by the rapid diffusion of fragmentary ideas, the study of how people’s heads come to be filled might be as important as the analysis of the things which fill them. Headlines and illustrations may determine what is understood, and the cast of mind of a community may be better known through its response to ephemera than by the close investigation of its accepted classics. Bibliographers have been led by such considerations to add habits of reading, and the messages the cost, format, design and illustration of texts may have carried, to their traditional concerns – which centre on the emendation of corrupt versions, and the study of how those corruptions come about.

The essays in The Culture of Print are contributions to this new bibliography. Roger Chartier has assembled detailed studies of print culture in the ‘narrower sense’ of the ‘set of new acts arising out of the production of writing and pictures in a new form’. Even the chapters which deal with printed material make connections both with pre-typographic traditions and with modern – sometimes post-typographic – ways of reading, writing and publishing. Printing, in this perspective, takes its place as a technology through which existing forms of writing multiplied and diversified, and by which it was possible to manipulate or exploit ancient appetites – for tales, news, gossip or truth.

Among the essays is one on Books of Hours by Paul Saenger, who discusses the effect of the ancient discovery of silent reading and the later development of the portable, personal book. He looks at the history of oral versus silent prayer and the consequences of the privacy the silently-read page offers – one was that, in the late Middle Ages and Early Modern period, margins could show erotic scenes ‘unimaginable in public art or publicly displayed liturgical texts’.

Alain Bourea traces the various uses of hagiography. The book of a saint’s life could be a magical charm as well as a service book and a subject for meditation. Printing allowed such adjuncts of piety to be used as weapons in power struggles, something contemporary readers may not have realised – just as children today are unaware of the social bias of the primers they learn to read from.

Christian Jouhard examines 17th-century French political ephemera and shows how broadsides, which we tend to think of as tools of subversion, were used by those in authority to explain and control political events. An example is the combination of text and emblematic illustration in a 17th-century placard recording the execution, exhumation and dismemberment by the mob of Concini, Louis XIII’s prime minister, which uses the same kind of symbolism as a modern political cartoon, and to similar purpose. ‘When the viewer saw ... a squirrel in Concini and Concini in the squirrel, it meant that he or she had already been caught in the trammels of an implicit line of argumentation addressed to the eye of the imagination.’

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