classical longings, again (see note 5)
While of course the mind can always go after what the feet can’t reach, I do value my feet bringing me again to what I set my mind on (1).
The current 1.5 km (hobbling) roaming range already opens up vast horizons since I have, when venturing out on foot (heading respectively North, North West and South East), three second hand bookshops (2) within reach .
Selective use of the city’s public transports had already been mastered early on after my accident (brandishing a crutch to secure a seat) in order to reach my place of daily diligence. But now also intercity train travel has been added to my expanding mobility range. Which allowed a visit to an exhibition of illuminated manuscripts in the Plantin Moretus museum in Antwerp, one of the world’s oldest printing shops.
The printed book ... now there’s an example of a new medium which quickly caught on, spread everywhere, evolved and kept up with the changing times to remain nearly unchallenged for hundreds of years.
Well, there was the advent of TV, grabbing a lot of people’s attention, but it never proved quite fatal for books.
Books remained in a category of their own, either as beautiful & venerable carriers of wisdom or else as easily transportable & user- friendly stores of knowledge & entertainment. Yes, books continued nearly unchallenged, until today’s handheld devices... Would they herald the end of the printed book?
But even then, a new carrier- technology need not also mean the end of a particular civilisation’s founding texts. Have not all ‘great human documents’ been digitalised by now? So is not in any case the “content” saved for many future generations to come?
Hmm, the “content”, perhaps, but what about the appreciation of these texts, what about their understanding by the general public? Who, outside university experts, is still reading these texts with care and respect? The past 50 years of advances in positive science and technology may have compromised the very notion of ancient texts bringing wisdom. And at the same time our ability and willingness to concentrate and spend time with a complex non-utilitarian text have declined. It’s of course not just because of smartphones and i-pads which invite to surfing & tweeting rather than to deep analysis . Perhaps it’s the sheer complexity of today’s world, with its high demands on our limited brainpower, which has simply used up our spare capacity for disinterested contemplation and thinking?
But back to the early printing days ... The printed book itself was of course a major technological innovation , which crowded out the illuminated manuscript and killed the delicate delightful art of miniatures (3).
Yet what this Plantin-Moretus exhibition endearingly shows, is how much the traditional authors and texts continued to be revered in those early printed book days, how meticulously printers would strive to faithfully reproduce ancient texts. Neither were the old illuminated manuscripts discarded, on the contrary : they were avidly collected as “things of beauty” to be carefully preserved.
The early age of the printed book was a time of bold explorations and discoveries in all domains – geography, anatomy, ....
A time too of religious unrest and ferocious reformations and counter-reformations. And yet in those complex and troubled times a fine humanist culture blossomed (in the wealthy Antwerp classes at least), lavishing loving attention on the authors and the arts of antiquity.
Going back home by tram, train and tram again, I obviously cannot fail to notice how many of my fellow passengers are distractedly caressing the touch-screens of their smart-phones . Conspicuous smart-phone-holders seem to outnumber discreet book-readers by 15 to 1 (hmm, book readers may of course very well be smart phone holders too). There’s no denying the fun those smartphone-holders have with their device, but I still find that, aesthetically speaking, their eye-finger movements, however agile, are no match for the flipping of rustling pages by a traditional reader.
Not to mention the supremely attractive look of concentration of a reader absorbed in a book-passage of particular beauty.
Such a passage perhaps as this one, in defence of classicism:
“[...] The joy to understand, bringing some support to the art of living. All that classicism leading to [mere]intellectual satisfaction? Certainly, but an intelligence then which is much broader than abstract reasoning, one that is capable of clarifying and purifying the life that goes by, capable of giving more courage to the heart. That harmony between formal appeal, human spiritual faculties and the experience of life , furnishes the secret of the aptly called ‘ interior classicism’, which has nothing to do with the formal academism with which it is all too often confounded. “ (4)
Notes & a little booklist
(1) Paraphrasing Walt Whitman “My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach”
(2) These hobbling health walks to the bookshop resulted in:
* 3 out-of-print André Chastel volumes, for a ffflâneur irresistibly titled: ‘Fables, Forms, Figures’ 2 volumes Henri Focillon on the Middle Ages,
* a small introduction to the Baroque by Victor-L. Tapié,
* a bundle of essays on the Jew as pariah by Hannah Arendt and the latter’s correspondence with Heinrich Blücher (I long hesitated to acquire that book of personal letters, since Arendt wrote so often about the difference between public and private persona and how the private should remain private),
* a little studious leaflet about ‘Joachim Le Patinier et Henri Blès – Leurs vrais visages’ (published by “ le Centre d’action culturelle de la Communauté d’expression française ayant pour objet d’assurer, dans le respect de la personne humaine, la promotion et le rayonnement culturels de la Communauté d’expression française en Belgique – “ ah, how a sentence can smell of the 70s )
(3) Though Panofsky in fact speculated that the traditional craft of illumination may rather have committed suicide by an overdose of painterly perspective – whose realistic illusionary depth was ill fitted for two dimensional book decorations . “On a dit que la miniature avait été tuée par l’invention de l’imprimerie ; en réalité, elle avait déjà commencé à se suicider en se transformant en peinture. Même sans Gutenberg, elle serait morte d’une “overdose” de perspective. “
(4) Victor L. Tapié, Baroque et Classicisme : ““[...]Le plaisir de comprendre apportant un secours à l’art de vivre. Tout ce classicisme conduisant à une satisfaction de l’intelligence? Assurément, mais il s’agit d‘une intelligence plus vaste que celle que du raisonnement abstrait, capable d’éclairer et de purifier la vie qui passe, de donner au coeur plus de courage. Cette harmonie entre les faculties spirituelles de l’homme, l’expérience de la vie et l’attrait de la forme fournit le secret de ce ‘classicisme intérieur’ [...] qui n’a rien à faire avec l’académisme formel [...] avec [lequel] on le confond trop souvent.”
(5) again ..... smuggling in an autobiographic note: an apology for classical longings