Thank you in Polish

Polish 3

It’s always a pleasure when I get thanked with a book or in a book.  I’ve been fortunate enough to have this happen lots.  Oddly, some scholars for whom you’ve gone the extra mile don’t mention you or the library at all and others, your contribution to which seemed just part of your job, thank you by name.  Of course, librarians don’t do it for that.  When you love information, where it lives, where it might hide, and how another’s research will make it speak, you don’t count the time.  Acknowledgements of my help to research always come as a surprise to me.

For the first time in my life (that I know of), I’ve been thanked for a resulting book in whose language I cannot read.  Why that makes me feel strange, I don’t know since I can’t take responsibility for what any scholar writes with the material I helped find.  And yet, a pleasure of this job is to scan those texts and marvel how it all fits together.

Lidia Klein, a graduate student from Poland in the Department of Art, Art History and Visual Studies, inscribed her latest publication to me with her thanks.  To know Lidia is to want to do anything for her:  constantly happy, continually understanding, a serious thinker.  An architectural historian of eastern Europe, her scholarship is considerable.  I was delighted, then, when she gave and dedicated a copy of her latest publication Żywe architektury it will sit among the myriad of other books I’ll never read.  But for a different reason than the others.

The author translates her title as “Living Architectures. Biological Analogies in Architecture of the End of the 20th Century,” a text I’d love to read.    But Polish is beyond me.  I realized many years ago that for me and foreign languages, I’ve spent twice as much time as most to learn half as much.  And I’ll never get around to Polish.  Perhaps for that reason, Lidia’s gesture is all the more intriguing.  Gratitude, however little it is deserved, is humbling.  Gratitude for something you’ll never understand is part of living in diversity.  Thank you, Lidia, and all the people who have mentioned a kind word on my behalf.  But thank you, particularly, Lidia, for reminding me of gratitude’s mystery.

Art History Books and the 1940s


Recently a pristine copy of the 1942 The Life of Forms in Art by Henri Focillon came across my desk.  This is not a book much studied currently, a largely formalistic essay on art by an expatriate French art historian at Yale.  Whatever its intellectual value–and it was still being mentioned when I went to graduate school in art history in the 1970s and ’80s–the volume in my hands struck me as a marvelous object, a memento of a politically dark time in the world, a memento mori of the life of academics, and as a piece of Duke history.  Do books just have to be about the information they have inside?

I know the text of this book from the 1948 Wittenborn paperback edition which I read at The University of Chicago library.  Wittenborn Books–that famous New York art book shop and publisher on East 57th Street and later 1018 Madison Avenue, updated the original Yale University Press design with kind of a Matisse-style layout by Paul Rand.  Thus I was surprised to see the first English-translation issued in so staid a form.  Green buckram, that characteristic covering reserved for academic imprints, and the gold spine lettering now largely gone from university-press titles.  The book’s a vademecum, a synthesis of approaches to art without being a specific system.


I tried to imagine the publishing world of 1942 America. Focillon, in failing health, was on his yearly exchange from the Sorbonne’s Institut d’Art et du Moyen Age when the United States entered World War II.  He was caught stateside, a rather better place to be all in all than occupation France.  In the Lilly Library, if you want to get an idea of what it was to exist in the United States in 1942, simply look at the advertisements in the Vogue or National Geographic magazines for those years.  Every advertisement, be it Palmolive soap or Philco air conditioners (below) had to related to the war effort.  Life1

It’s strange to think of the idea of ‘form in art’ and read this vulgar stereotype advertisement.  The Axis in 1942 seemed to be winning everywhere.  Country after country overrun, the Holocaust machine in full operation and, in this country, shortages of everything: rubber, sugar, paper and even the copper to make pennies (U. S. 1943 pennies were steel).  Focillon’s original French text had been composed in 1933, the year of Hitler’s rise to power.  It was translated into English by two New Haven scholars, Charles Beecher Hogan, a modest Yale English professor who had conveniently married of the wealthiest women in the country, and the other a student of Focillon, the eminent Yale art historian George Kubler.  Kubler, would twenty years later exceed his master by writing his own short treatise, the still-brilliant Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things.  All this publishing history is well-known.

Books, however, have locus.  A colleague of mine in libraries worries that library collections will become indistinguishable from one another.  Yet collections are shaped by the richness of their individual volumes as much as by their collection uniqueness.  The copy in my hands was owned by an eminent Duke faculty member, the late Lawrence Richardson, jr (1920-2013).  Richardson was a classics professor and author (of many books) but for me a treasured personal copy of his 1992 New Topical Dictionary of Ancient Rome.  I looked at the fly-leaf signature.


The script is clear and the date precise, “October 13th, 1942”.  He must have bought the book the day it was issued.  It seemed initially odd for a classicist to have been so interested in what a French medievalist thought of form theory that he would have bought a copy “hot off the presses” as it were.  Somehow, readership has a way of crashing into one another.  Today we theorize how the traditional scholarly text is dead, how future publishing will rely on a series of socially-networked contributions to knowledge.  In 1942 there was only the author and his budding reader.  Richardson would go on to write his dissertation on the painters of Pompeii’s Casa dei Dioscuri (though through Yale’s classics department).  It made sense he’d want to read what art historians thought about the analysis of form.

What a terrible time to be thinking about the monuments of European art, of culture and freedom.  How did anything get published much less in green buckram and gold lettering?  Focillon had earlier asserted boldly that “the hand controls the eye.”  At that publication year, people everywhere were dying to fight an esthetic that only allowed for racial purity and the most stilted form of warmed-over Roman art (a la Albert Speer).  If scholarship is challenged today, it’s nothing like the challenges of researching or publishing in 1942.

What I will miss most about holding the book-as-object is not so much the physical piece (online reading suits me just fine) but the absence of evidence of the tradition of scholarly reading.  One can appreciate just as well in an electronic text as a printed book the hardships of publishing during World War II.  But gone from us will be the notion of who might have read the text in another era:

What stranger’s feet may find the meadow,
And trespass there and go.
Nor ask amid the dews of morning,
If they are mine or no.

RichardsonLawrence Richardson, jr., in Italy in the 1950s.


Was it Eliot’s Toilet I Saw?


A piece in the NYT‘s “Weekly Review” by James Collins on not outliving one’s office supplies began by quoting Eliot’s “Little Giddings,” one of the Four Quartets, the last and posthumously published poems by T. S.  I was not familiar with the poems and so, it being Primavera, I went to Perkins Library to check it out.  The sole copy available is an exceedingly worn first edition (1943), spine repaired with book tape and its pages some of the most heavily annotated, defaced, tortured, marginalia’ed I’d ever seen.  Here is the Angst of at least seven discernible hands (if my paleography is correct), crazed graduate students, bleary-eyed undergraduates, and perhaps a dutiful girlfriend helping her harried boyfriend, all trying to pull meaning from this verse the past seventy years.

Much has been written about marginalia, that study of reader’s commentary in the blank portions of (mostly medieval) texts.  It’s a form of public feed-back, crowd-sourcing-before-crowdsourcing.  When I was a graduate student, library book marginalia annoyed me.  I didn’t care if a reader ten years earlier thought the paragraph at hand was Kopros. Dutiful English word translations of the foreign quotations were always handy–though I usually quibbled with the German.  Today I take a tenderer view.  Those poor English majors, today working in the family business or those literature Ph.D.’s now high school principals, never having had their say on Eliot in any public forum, except in Duke’s sole copy of the Four Quartets.

The more I looked at these comments the more the pages appeared as art. Circles and arrows resembling David Cutcliffe’s diagram for an end around.  Fragmentary thoughts:  “different emotional tone,”  “epic simile,”  “See BN III [and then circled] The way down.”  The ‘way down’, indeed.  If Julian Schnabel’s canvases can be considered art, this must qualify, too.  So much of Eliot was devoted to recalling old texts (“can these dry bones speak?”).  How rich the layers upon layers of phrases–and what else is poetry but perhaps that very thing, forming a new text, a nearly different one from the original, without the palimpsest erasures?

Assuming some of this annotation is contemporary to the publication date, the earliest responders are likely dead.  All are gone from this place in North Carolina.  What I once saw (and am professionally required to see) as defacement, I find now as monument.  Like the graffito left by Goths during the sack of Rome.

I’ll let you figure out the ‘secret’ of this blog’s title, purportedly written in the men’s room of Faber & Faber, where the poet was employed.