30 January 2011

George Eliot Sure Knew What She Was Talking About

"The lapse of time during which a given event has not happened, is, in this logic of habit, constantly alleged as a reason why the event should never happen, even when the lapse of time is precisely the added condition which makes the event imminent."
 (George Eliot, Silas Marner, chapter 5)

Good epigraph for a book on peak oil, ain't it?

18 January 2011

Epitaph of Sardanapolos

The current issue of the New Yorker has a long article about the history of the US Constitution as artifact, document, idea, and object of discussion, derision, and reverence.  Early on, author Jill Lepore write, "As an object, the Constitution has more in common with the Dead Sea Scrolls than with what we now think of as writing: pixels floating on a screen, words suspended in a digital cloud, bubbles of text. R we the ppl? Our words are vaporous. Not so the Constitution."

The shift from writing as words-on-paper to words-in-electronic-aether has happened during my lifetime, rapidly. A hard-core bibliophile, I still manage to read more words on paper than words on the screen, but this is increasingly difficult to keep up as work demands more and more on-screen, on-keyboard time.

Most of the writing coming into the world at this moment is surely born on a keyboard and breathing in electronic memory. Is this writing? The value of the printed page declines in the minds of literate people. The value of the book declines even in colleges. The difference erodes between the labor of years embodied in a book, and the flicker of thought brought into evanescent life via the fingertips, the glowing screen.

I still value the books more. The parchment. Last summer I spent countless hours inscribing a poem onto a scroll of undyed muslin, ninety yards long and seven inches wide. Inscribing each letter with fabric paint, working the paint into the fabric. Each word took a few minutes; a sentence could take an hour.  I thought of monks, hand-copying texts that took years to finish, in rooms dedicated to this purpose, scriptoria.

Now I think of painting words on fabric, of embroidering poems on old linen napkins. The opposite of a blog: slow, useless, permanent. Poems that can outlast the flickering pixels of this civilization. Words as objects. An organization on this island made a huge banner of the preamble to the Constitution, large enough to drape over the steps of the Supreme Court. The constitution as a giant tarpaulin draped over the house of the nation. 

The blog is a leaf in the forest of the internet, a fragment, impermanent and anonymous. The poems in the books are solid as bricks. A poem or civic creed, embroidered in cotton on linen, could last a thousand years, or more. Who will pick through the fragments of this culture, looking for what we thought, what we meant? 

The Epitaph of Sardanapalos
I keep the taste of feasting,
And the wage of wantonness,
And the joys shared with lovers;
But the blessings of many
Possessions I leave behind.

Anonymous, translated by Kenneth Rexroth
Poems from the Greek Anthology
University of Michigan Press, 1962.