The rewards of ecumenical book juggling
When I recently mentioned that I typically read multiple books simultaneously, I almost said it was a bad habit; I almost apologized for it. But in fact, I’ve always done it, sometimes returning to books I’ve begun reading years later, and non, je ne regrette rien.
For one thing, there are lots of reasons to stop reading books, some books you’re not ready for, and need to put off and read something else. Sometimes you find another book that you want to read immediately, so it jumps the queue, and the rest of the list gets pushed back.
I started reading Prague in Black and Gold probably in 2002, and finished it a few months ago. As my fencing coach says when I or other members of the club miss a few sessions, “Life happens.” I was absolutely sure I wanted to read this book, and enjoyed it when I did, but other things just took me away from it for over a decade.
Sorry, not sorry.
For another thing, form is a concern: some books work great with Kindle on my phone, others, particularly ones with lots of illustrations need to be hard copies, and others still are very large and heavy, which precludes me from reading them anywhere other than home. This point alone means I’m probably actively reading at least three books at any given time.
And reading multiple books at once can be rewarding as well, when the books begin to talk to one another. Reading Jorge Luis Borges’ On Writing at the same time as Old Masters and Young Geniuses reminded me that the classical and romantic aesthetics might actually be the wheel David Galenson was attempting to reinvent in the latter book.
And while simultaneity is fun, just running into unexpected references, differing points of view, and even contradictions, is illuminating regardless: In the Land of Invented Languages which I am reading now is colliding with Borges’ “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins” (“El Idioma Analítico de John Wilkins”) from whenever I read it last. Umberto Eco’s The Search for the Perfect Language (La ricerca della lingua perfetta nella cultura europea) also covers some of the same ground as In the Land of Invented Languages. The Borges and Eco overlaps are a surprise—I was expecting more on Klingon….
While I am aware that the common factor is me, and so this might sound nearly tautological, I actually don’t think it is.
For one thing, I try to mix things up. I try to choose not only dissimilar books to read simultaneously, but when I finish a book, I try to choose a new one that’s also different from it. There are, naturally, some authors that I cycle back to, but I try to give new and different ones a chance as well.
So obviously if I read Eco, I can expect to encounter Borges, Doctor Mirabilis, Roger Bacon, The fake letter of Prester John, and various heresies that seem minor now but would result in a trip to the stake in the 13th century. But I enjoy reading him because unexpected things also come up like Candomblé in Foucault’s Pendulum (Il pendolo di Foucault), Schtroumpfs (Smurfs) in Kant and the Platypus (Kant e l’ornitorinco), or the difficulties inherent in using hotel room fridges in “How to Travel with a Salmon” (“Come viaggiare con un salmone”).
A little while back, I was reading Eco’s History of Beauty and Complicated Game: Inside the Songs of XTC simultaneously and both were discussing Futurism. Discussing the title of the album Drums and Wires, XTC frontman and primary songwriter Andy Partridge says:¹
We were going to call the album Boom Dada Boom. I’d been reading about the Futurists, I’d been reading Dadaism, because I liked the mischievous nature of it[…]
One of the reasons I’ve long been a fan of XTC, is that Partridge, the interviewee in the book, is a bit more thoughtful than most musicians: I’d go so far as to call him an artist. He has thoughts not just about his music, but about videos, and album covers, that in turn stem from knowledge in movements in art, literature, film, and various other cultural phenomena.
Partridge brings up Futurism again in discussing the song “Roads Girdle the Globe”:²
I was reading a lot about the Futurists at the time—you know, the Italian art movement? The sort of thing they would write would be in praise of speed, and motorcars, and machines. I think there were big dollops of that in there as well—so, the lyrics are quasi-Futurist.
And Eco’s book is not just about “beauty” either (I’ve said the “real” title should be History of Aesthetic Culture in the West): he discusses movements in the fine arts as well as those in literature, philosophy, architecture, decorative arts, fashion, etc. and how they bear on one another. He discusses the views of Filippo Tommaso Emilio Marinetti, one of the main figures in Futurism:³
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the time was ripe for the futurist exaltation of speed and, after having called for the murder of moonlight because it was useless poetic garbage, Marinetti went so far as to state that a racing car was more beautiful than the Nike of Samothrace.
And while it might seem unrelated, this violent and iconoclastic art movement is very relevant to XTC in the late ’70s, when a similar one was occurring in music. Partridge himself coined the now-ubiquitous term “Punk Wars” to describe the anti-aesthetic that branded intelligent lyrics “insincere” and musical proficiency “self-indulgent”, and he’s thinking here about which side he’s on.
The song’s lyrics include:⁴
Hail mother motor
Hail piston rotor
Your iron, oil, and steel
Your sacred three
Lines replacing old-timey religion with the worship of the automobile, which fit well with Futurism’s tenets, and might’ve easily found a place among the Warboys of Mad Max: Fury Road. But in the end, Partridge doesn’t endorse Marinetti: he’s satirizing both Futurism and the idea that having cars everywhere is a good idea, and just the fact that his message has that much nuance is also anti-punk.
Turning back to Marinetti, it’s important to note that the avant-garde, regardless of time, place, or medium, deals in provocation. They deliberately go against the grain of whatever the dominant forces in their medium are in order to trigger a response. Eco describes it thus:⁵
[T]he avant-garde has provocatively flouted all aesthetic canons respected until now. Art is no longer interested in providing an image of natural Beauty, nor does it aim to procure the pleasure ensuing from the contemplation of harmonious forms. On the contrary, its aim is to teach us to interpret the world through different eyes, to enjoy a return to archaic or esoteric models, the universe of dreams or the fantasies of the mentally ill, the visions provoked by drugs, the rediscovery of material, the startling re-presentation of everyday objects in improbable contexts, and subconscious drives.
And despite some of the crazy ideas of the Futurists, the concept of the beauty of the machine, not a part of the aesthetic of Marinetti’s time, has today become firmly embedded in our culture. This means the notion is effectively an expansion of the definition of art, which, in the end, is a good thing.
The specific worship of the internal combustion engine, and in particular automobiles maybe less so, and part of what Partridge is satirizing, but it was the future then—if he were alive today, Marinetti would doubtless be wondering where our personal spacecraft are:⁶
We must steal from the stars the secret of their amazing, incomprehensible speed. So let’s take part in the great celestial battles; let’s tackle the star-shells fired by invisible cannons; let’s compete against the star known as 1830 Groombridge, which flies at 241 kilometers per second, and against Arcturus, which flies at 430 kilometers per second.
People among the literati, academicians, philosophers, who don’t have their heads up their own asses have known for some time that so-called low culture matters. Works like Eco’s Faith in Fakes: Travels in Hyperreality (Il costume di casa), and Barthes’ Mythologies (another convergence from my reading list) are not “slumming it” by looking into matters like pro wrestling or (non-Nietzschean) Superman. Rather than being dismissive of pop culture because of its very popularity, they seek instead to analyze its widespread appeal. In this interplay of cultural forms, from Roy Lichtenstein’s appropriations of pulp pages of comics onto canvases hanging in museums to Takashi Murakami’s “Superflat” concept, it’s important to recognize that there is just one ecosystem.
Then we come to games. Games remain largely narrow and self-referential, and some even say, anti-intellectual. One idea has it that games are entertainment and not art, but those who hold this view are just as ridiculous as those who look down on games as puerilia.
Even in Hollywood, arguably even more dumbed down than games, there at least used to be some recognition of this, with one example coming from the documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut, which discusses at length the false duality of artist and entertainer.
It makes sense to me that operating only at the poles of what is really a continuum is extremely limiting and, ultimately, boring, both for creators and audiences. Many of my favorite things contain elements of both. Even watching this movie about how Truffaut’s book, also titled Hitchcock/Truffaut, cemented Hitch’s status as an artist, many of the clips from his films made me laugh out loud, and yet these entertainments gave me still greater respect for his artistry.
- Andy Partridge and Todd Bernhardt, Complicated Game: Inside the Songs of XTC, 2016.
- Umberto Eco, History of Beauty (Storia della bellezza), 2004.
- Lyrics transcribed from Andy Partridge, “Roads Girdle the Globe”, Drums and Wires, XTC, 1979.
- Eco, 2004.
- Quoted in ibid.