Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Historiography: A Little Black Book

and the hall was well lit as i walked down it
and that's all i remember
and the rain was light and it felt soft on my face
and that's all i remember
and the car was quiet inside
and that's all i remember
and it was dark when the sunlight was coming
and that's all i remember
-"Historiography" The Mountain Goats

Historiography: The writing of history. Written history. History in specific language; as we remember it; bounded by our own particular consciousnesses. History in perspective; of perspective...

The reading room of New York's Morgan Library has a stainless steel sink where you have to wash your hands each time you enter. It has high ceilings, walls covered by bookshelves, and oak tables with individual lamps, book stands of varying sizes, and hushed little velvet weights to still the edges of increasingly fragile pages. It's very quiet, save for the librarians trying to locate a journal, or the few minutes in the afternoon when a young academic in blue felt sneakers who has spent the whole morning pouring over illuminated manuscripts accidentally turns her computer display sideways, and no one can figure out how to help her because all the controls are in her native German.

The manuscript of the first book of Paradise Lost is all that survies from its drafting, 27 pages, flimsy sheets in so many hands we can't parse them all out: falling apart like a flower someone pressed and then forgot about for far too many years. The first edition was published in 1667 and is only about as tall as my hand, from the heel of my palm to my fingertips. It's black and undistinguished with a little bit of a gold border, and nothing written on the cover or the spine. If you saw it in a used bookstore or an antique shop you wouldn't look twice. You'd think: maybe a hymnal, or a ledger someone kept of their dry goods, or a copy of the bible. It looks like some small thing has taken its mouth to the pages, and gummed away the edges, or ripped at them with tiny teeth: time. I am afraid to breathe too hard.

As a scholar and an artist I am devoted to language, ideas, metaphor, narrative, form: so much that is intangible, elusive, ineffable. In the past several years Milton's work has become a particularly important rendering of all these things for me. "Man's first disobedience." Eve falling in love with her own reflection, Adam alone in the fields as Eve strolls off, Satan peering down onto the garden; in love with beauty; breathing in Eve's ear, Raphael dangling knowledge and then pulling it away like a low hanging branch. Eve's last speech, a sonnet in an unrhyming poem. They are alone but not alone. We are alone but not alone.

And so to hold these things in my hands; fraying pages, a little black book, it was my life, my love my faith made maniefst. Tome, tomb, temple, first record of a first disobidence. One particular history my eyes are always turned toward, one particular memory of a self in the world. A blind man has a fallen woman on the insides of his eyelids, or a fallen angel, or a capital called pandemonium-- getting louder.

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