Sunday, March 04, 2012

the first book

In these clear evenings of early March, even a few uninterested passers-by must have been briefly diverted by Jupiter and Venus in such bright proximity, more or less in Aries - and the young moon passing close to both. And at the other end of the ecliptic, below Leo's belly, Mars is glowing pinkly.

We don't read it often, but it's a book; the first book of humanity. Animals perhaps read a little in this book: for example seabirds navigating on clear nights. It seems unlikely that plants have much use for it, except possibly the moon: biodynamic farmers may know more about this.

It is not an accident that writing and astronomy developed together in arid locations such as Mesopotamia. You do not do much star-gazing in rain-forest or on clouded Atlantic coasts. Besides, arid conditions are the best for making permanent records; they do not rot. In the short span of human life, many sublunar objects appear permanent: the local hilltop, the river, the large tree. Permanence is one requirement of a book that can be read by successive individuals. But the night sky is more book-like. It is two-dimensional. Its characters are small compared to its page. It revolves, so that like a book it cannot be read all at once; it imposes gradualness.

Vincent (comment below) draws attention to Abram's idea about the influence from tracking to reading. I like that. What both this idea and the night sky idea have in common is that they are non-linguistic. But of course the really obvious derivation of reading is from listening to someone talking (chanting, singing...); by the same token, the really obvious derivation of the book is from oral artefect (e.g. oral legend or maxims or ceremonial chant). After Derrida, we almost neglect that background, and we shouldn't. But still, there are aspects of "bookness" that are distinct and different from the oral interchange of language.

Gilbert Murray's generalized description of "the ancient book" in The Rise of the Greek Epic (1911) emphasizes that it was only quite recently that we came to regard the book as "something you read yourself". The nineteenth century was the classic era of private individual communings with the book; those marvellous portraits of pretty readers; Charlotte B's intimate address to "Reader"; &c.

The ancient conception of a book was different. You did not read it yourself. Reading was highly professionalized so, of course, you needed an expounder. (In my corner of the world it was Wyclyffe and Tyndale who eventually shifted this gigantic boulder of an idea.)

In the night sky, we see why you'd need an expounder. This book is not written by a human being and it does not have a language, i.e. interpretation does not depend on a pre-existing code.



At 12:04 pm, Blogger Vincent said...

Of all the posts you have written, Michael, this one excites me the most.

I want to ask you where you got this idea. Is it original? Every true idea--and most false ones--have probably been thought thousands of times. And that doesn't stop us being original.

I also wonder if you have read anything by David Abram. In The Spell of the Sensuous: perception and language in a more-than-human world, he associates language with landscape, and its sounds to natural sounds like birdsong. He draws much of his inspiration in this book from oral cultures, and speculates that the part of the brain which can read signs on a page was already developed from the primitive hunter's ability to read animal behaviour and glean meaning from tiny signs when tracking.

Your idea doesn't gainsay Abram's: merely adds another layer.

At 12:30 pm, Blogger Michael Peverett said...

Thanks Vincent! No, it doesn't feel like an original thought, but if there was a specific source I don't remember it. Perhaps it may have been a stray remark in Gilbert Murray's Rise of the Greek Epic (1911), which is full of wonderful ideas about the nature of an Ancient Book.

I mean to expand this post a little, so might incorporate your ref to Abram's idea.


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