"If we would understand a fine art, with that completeness, which its criticism requires, it is necessary, that we should first be acquainted with its various technical methods, especially in so far as these control, and determine, the nature of the design and workmanship employed in its productions."
- Herbert P. Horne, The Binding of Books
The mustiness of libraries have always held a fascination for me, the rich smells of leather and glue, the bindings of ancient tomes with their strange allure and elegant leaves hiding a mystery that can never be fully resolved into the light of day. The art and craft of binding books is almost a lost science in these days of electronic readers and the intertextual mazes of linked blogs and twitters and facebooks: all hinting at the short-lived mysteries of an electronic labyrinth of knowledge that is always just out of reason's calculated grasp.
There was a time when men sheathed their written secrets in rings of carved ivory covered in hieroglyphics, bound in leaden tablets covered in gold and silver; even earlier, in baked clay with cuneiform characters carved by a bone stylus, each tablet hidden in temples out of the site of all but the masterful literati of a dark and nihilistic religion; and, at other times, and in other ages men covered palm leaves with imperceptible silk threads in a folded brocade of endless words of magic; still others were kept in cedar boxes, written on the hides of carefully selected and sacrificed animals, on carefully tempered Vellum collecting the black thoughts of elder gods and demons; while, later, in such capitols as Byzantine books were inlaid with precious jewels and metals using what they termed as the "Art" to secrete their relics in cavities of dark and spectral materials, housing the ghostly thoughts of the dead. In even later times the Moroccans used the fine tools of the Venetian's to create a style of book binding that encased their works in bold gold lines arranged in geometrical designs of such intricacy that the very substance of the work became a hyperdimensional artifact of rare quality, allowing the beholder to enter strange dimensions outside the reasoning walls of our temporal universe.
It was one such work that came into my possession by chance, when one Gaspard Remy entered my studio on a cold winter's day.
As usual I'd been working on a modest series of papyrus, a restoration project for the Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana, as a favor for Father Romero. I used the ritual and proscribed methods of restoration laid down in early Church history by such figures as Fr. Antonio Piaggio. His careful creation and inventive talent for the specialized tools and equipment needed to unroll the papyrus scrolls of Herculaneum were astounding. But it was from such men as Franz Ehrle that I learned the true art of binding. By studying his systematic methods of analysis of the corrosive effects of ink damage and the ill-effects of chemical reagents applied to palimpsests in order to increase their legibility I was able to understand the art and science of book binding and produce effective remedies for the restoration of these precious artifacts. Yet, I worked alone, and was not part of a workshop of skilled craftsmen, and this at times brought me into conflict with certain political factions within both the State and Church. But this did not matter to me, no; all that mattered was the perfection of my art and the restoration of the artifact to its pristine state of purity. Was this ever possible? No. But the idea of it was still worth striving for.
I know that such things are passé for such as yourself, you who tend to see books as something obsolete, just another glob of resistant material against which your mind must move to get at the actual meat of knowledge hidden within their bloody animal covers. But for me it is both the delicate embrocating - the touch of my big thick fleshy hands against the living power of a book; as well as, the ontic power of the material object itself, that awakens within me the defining power of the real, the vast mystery of the groundless ground that is the dark vitality of Nature herself, that absolute against which we define ourselves as human beings. To hold in my bare hands the power of another's mind, to measure the careful texture and magical chemistry of each binding, page, and object of the book is to know the force of Nature. Digital imagery will never gain my trust as a book in hand does, for the simple reason that the digital universe is always under erasure: the flickering pulses of the binary codes that make up this menagerie of infinite replication and discourse on the internet can never be bound into the knot of a single cover. This and this alone, causes me great despair; even the mustiness I so relish, the dust and fragrance of decaying animal flesh is something that the pure light of a monitor gazing on the window of the web will never share. No, a library of old books, bound in the finery of the ancient art, will never be replaced by this utopia of infinite information.
As I said, previously, Gaspard Remy walked in out of a blistering snowy winter's day into the warm decay of my bookshop and studio with a package in his hands wrapped carefully in a sheath of fine linen and leather. He was not a tall man, rather bony and thin; yet, he had a fine head: with eyes, deep set and wide, full of brilliant blue fire; and a silver beard that tapered evenly in a typical handlebar and chin puff. He wore an atypical Derby and a full length Charcoal Callahan frock coat with a black double-brested vest underneath which fit him like the proverbial glove. He was a taciturn man, not given to much talk, a man who, even though serious, knew how to crack a cynical joke if in the right company. But today he seemed nervous, his hands shaky and trembling, his eyes, usually clear and bright seemed dark and heavy and darting. Instinctively I reached under the counter and grabbed a crystal of Hennessy X.O., my finest; poured a snifter and handed it to him while I took his coat and hat and placed them in an alcove.
He stood there looking at me like a mortician; his visage ghostly and full of deadly intent. I almost laughed to salvage my composure; instead I walked forward and said, "Dear, dear, friend, what brings you out on such a terrible day?" Then I grabbed his left arm, his other arm locked around the package like a vice, and guided him toward the back of my shop where I had a warm stove and a cup of piping hot coffee waiting.
As we sat at the table, he sipping from the snifter, I drinking a black cup of Brazilian, I watched him fidget with the package for a few minutes before we continued to speak. He seemed to be in conversation with a ghostly self, some interlocutor with a devilish mind, carrying on an internal dialogue of mysterious import that I could intuitively discern, even if I was not privy, too, as I interrupted his thoughts, saying, "Gaspard, what in the world is wrong? What is this thing you're holding there in that leather pouch? Speak up..."
Suddenly he interrupted my speech, standing up like a bolt, saying: "It was all a mistake, a terrible mistake; I shouldn't be here, I know you can't help me; all, all, a terrible waste...", then, just as suddenly, he sat down and put his hands to his face and began to cry. This disturbed me tremendously. I had never seen my friend in such trepidation before, and didn't know just quite what to do. So I sat there for a few moments and let his emotions fall around me like a dark presentiment of things to come.
Emotional outbursts such as this were something that always left me at a loss. I just could not understand why a grown man could let himself be led by physical and emotional pains into the dark drift of animalistic turmoil, instead of allowing his reason to guide and shape his thoughts into something more equitable. But, who was I to question such things; I, who, at times, am an emotional wreck myself, and have been since the recent death of my young wife some years before. I knew how the unwanted emotions of loss could overtake one like some dangerous beast encroaching on one's civilized self with all the wildness and untamed violence of a cannibalistic feeding session of self-loathing and bitterness; that would leave me at times full of lethargic apathy for days on end.
I had, since my wife died, lived in a dark vacuous circle of pain; forever cut off from my desire for her I lived in a realm of unbeing, one of the living dead who continue to haunt the living in a virtual semblance of life rather than in life itself. I felt like I'd been cast into this dark world, neither a willing inhabitant, nor a hopeful participant of its strange days, but a mournful spirit laboring under the illusions of past evil, one caught in the web of an ancient tragedy that had left me forever wandering and alone in this dreary veil of sadness and indestructible melancholia without recourse or hope for a brighter world.
Maybe I was in love with my mournful dilemma a little too much, maybe this mournfulness was itself the evil I needed to resolve; forever broken, lost among a veil of objects I did not make, and did not care for; cut off eternally from the true object of my lost desire, I roamed this wilderness of abject indifference like a god who could no longer even remember the face of his lost love. Wandering in the tropics of negativity, under the burden of a remaindered oblivion, I felt helpless before the loss of the trace that was my former paradise. Yet, I lived with this death, this life... a jackal of indecision and misgivings, caught up in a fabricated world of unreality from which there would never be an escape.
As I was about to fall deeper into more tortuous and vain reveries my friend awakened out of his own emotional well and spoke to me, saying, "Jacob, I have seen what no man should see, I have seen beyond the veil of tears and into the realm of a terrible beauty where all things drift toward the unreal city of dreams and nightmares."
Puzzled by this fantastic statement I scratched my chin, reached for my coffee cup and swallowed the last dregs of the cold bitter liquid. Then I reached for the crystal carafe of cognac and drank a solid shot straight from the bottle bypassing the olfactory wonder of its amber perfection. Then I looked deep into my friend's bloodshot eyes, saying, "What the hell or you mumbling on about, Gaspard? You know how this sounds, like madness, like the ravings of a stark lunatic; you're a man of scholarly persuasion, a fellow in good standing at the University, what is it you think you've seen, and exactly what is it you've done to bring about such fantastical conclusions; does it have something to do with the unusual object in your pouch? Come on, my friend, make sense to me, speak to me from the beginning... tell me the story of this strange adventure."
My friend, Gaspard, sat there a moment gathering his composure then began telling me his tale:
Long ago, among the people of Za, there was a tribe called the Zadi, a curious people who lived on the edge of a great forest. The Zadi were a hunting and gathering people who wandered the great forests in search of wild things. They learned the power of the forest, the language of the birds and animals, the secret destiny and lore of the trees, and the dark magic of the underworld of roots and vines and insects that lived below the great canopy in shadow and darkness.
One day a group of hunters came into a malformed clearing, a place where nothing living had its place, where the great forest melted into decay and ruin before its terrible magic. The men of the Zadi stood in wonder at such a thing, a place that was no place, which existed in nothingness with nothing inside or outside its boundaries to show forth a sense of the presence of life. One of the men being both foolhardy and prideful boasted to the others that he would discover the secret of this dark place and set off toward the murky boundary where even what little light shining down from the emerald canopy was lost in its thick mist. As he approached the mist, the spider monkeys high above began their high-pitched wala wala songs, scampering from vine to vine in a maddening arc, dancing round and round the hunter in a crazed pitch of ululation; some chittering and chattering, as others in dithyrambic pattering barked and cried at the hunter fiercely, sending the hunters into a fit of madness, leading some of them to run off into the forest blindly like frightened children; yet, the leaders, the elders of the tribe, held firm watching on in wonder and awe as the lone hunter moved steadily toward his destiny.
As the hunter approached the place of death he suddenly yelled out in pain trying to turn back, but it was too late. The other men stood in amazement, fascinated, spell-bound by the spectacle, watching him as the mist slowly came alive, pulsing and whirling and spinning out of the blackness, enveloping the hunter in its slimy dance of death like a thousand swords swinging round in a plover of ice and fire, cutting the young hunter into hundreds of slivers of flesh and bone, each rising up from the earth in the grasp of this black demon of the forest, slowly absorbed into the whirling dervish of its living void, then subsiding back into lifelessness and the shadowy world of silence and lifelessness from which it had come.
From that day forward the tribe cleared a path to this place of death, bringing stones from the southern quarries, building a magnificent temple to the dark god who lived in the mist. They called this god Zrok, the god of the mist, and worshipped him in awe and fear, dancing before him in maddening gyrations that imitated the whirling plover of the living mist that had once encompassed their dead comrade.
At this point my friend stopped his narrative; his eyes full of an unearthly fire, darted back and forth helplessly as if he, too, were surrounded by that dark god and his strange mist. His breath became heavy and his face drained of all color, then he reached up to his throat as if someone or something were choking him and heaved over into the middle of the floor squirming and wriggling like a serpent in its death throes, then he went rigid and let out a screech the likes of which I hope never to hear again. Then he died at my feet, his wide eyes staring into a black void of horror from which there would be no salvation.
At that moment I noticed something wriggling its way out of the pouch on the table that held my friend's mysterious book. I watched on curious as to what it might be as it stirred under the veil of cloth and leather folds, and then I saw it: a black rat, an ugly looking specimen of the genus Rattus rattus; a flea-ridden pest from the southern oceans that had once caused the demise of my ancestors during the fated era of the Black Plague. I took a pan from my kitchen sink and tried to batter the rodent as quickly as I could but to ill-effect, for it was too lively and leaped from the table and into the stygian gloom of my library. It was from that moment that my troubles began.
Each of us must come to a certain point in life when the realization that everything that surrounds us is unreal, that the desires of our hearts have lead us all into an abyss of illusions and nightmares; with the arrival of this black rat I had finally entered a new stage in life, I had found an enemy who could focus the last vestiges of the only reality that had ever mattered to me, and awaken in me a desire for something else - another life beyond all this maddening chaos of existence. Yet, it would not be a way out of the unreal, but a deeper entwining with and into its deadly zero land, a vita negativa: - not some mystic and rapturous way into light, but a daemonic, musing entre into the darkest zones of material existence. Maybe my nihilistic proclivities had finally won the day; maybe I'd finally succumbed to the dark vitality at the center of existence, some terrible truth hiding just below the surface of all objects ready to pounce upon the unsuspecting traveler who would dare enter Time's cosmic anteroom of most cherished illusions.
Note: a another story idea I'm working on... stay tuned... :)