Bibliophile as Biblioclast

However a poem is read, readers can employ all their faculties in reading
and the possibilities of interaction with the poem are virtually endless.
At this time, notation is not a static body of convention, but a nexus
between large areas of contemporary practice.

Karl Young, "Notation and the Art of Reading" [1]

In the doomed assault on late-capitalist commodification of the representations by means of which a culture of speed and images maintains its control, radical book art broadly conceived forms perhaps the most effective counter-measure available to serious artists in the modern period. This has to do with the fact that the book still remains the chief cultural form of Western societies, so that instances of its distortion, manipulation, and aesthetic subversion constitute themselves as a locus of critique of the chronological/serial structuring of reality. The relation between a book's diachronic physical form and its synchronic visual/graphic dimension is the matrix from which examples of representation are struck. These representations, based as they are on an unspoken yet fully assumed mimesis by means of which an outer world (nature) is split off from an inner (man, and his idealization, God), then in turn reify the terms of their existence, as if through this double deception to underwrite themselves as a permanent and unchanging category.

Now in spite of the fact that defiant or crafty acts of resistance to the processes of control at work in contemporary societies of necessity are holding actions, eddies in the onrush towards destruction, any developed theory of cultural criticism must be able to account for the negative counter-cases which monolithic phallocentric representation engenders. Thus, although obvious differences exist between the main concerns of the Russian Cubo-Futurists during the "heroic" period and those of Western European and American book artists of the 1960s and after, a cross-section such as that cut above clearly reveals that such work has more in common than otherwise. "Emphasizing the principle rather than the form in new conditions, there arise official and unofficial strata of culture. In this sense, samizdat is substantially different from the artist's book in America, which tends to estheticize the book, emphasizing elements of craft and preserving the commodity function." [2] This mistakenly conflates the two main traditions of artists' books in the West: the edition de luxe, and anti-books. After all, as John E. Bowlt points out in the same volume:

Furthermore, and paradoxically, even though the Cubo-Futurists wished to desanctify art (hence the pigs and bad words in some of Larioanov's paintings or the Jewish in-jokes in Chagall's), they were no less elitist, no less sophisticated, no less esoteric than their immediate literary and artistic forebears, the Symbolists: their books too, were published in miniscule editions, they were often incomprehensible, and decipherment of their messages relied on a keen understanding of contemporary cultural developments in Russia and the West. [3]

It is precisely in the blurring of the socially imposed distinction between "official and unofficial strata of culture" in contemporary society that one can locate a critical praxis of value.

As an example of such an understanding of the fuller potential of the book, in Karl Young's Five Kwaidan in sleeve pages, [4] the book's physical form becomes an active if subtle signifier enriching the overall meaning of the stories, which themselves lose the transparency of conventional signification as they are displaced by their mode of expression in the material world. As this is the most notable feature of this relatively small yet graphically rich letterpress production, my discussion of the tales will be informed throughout by it.

As he explains in a preface, Young has based his five poems on Japanese ghost stories taken from Lafcadio Hearn's Kwaidan. Thus we are supplied with a context which may affect our reading. Most significantly in this regard, the author in each "poem" uses a flat narrative line which is found wanting, inadequate to his greater purposes, making necessary the supernatural elements which cause the linear unfolding of a conventional narrative plot to transcend itself. "Aoyagi," for example, is a beautifully simple story of love fulfilled, then interrupted by death. Only at the ending, when Tomotada returns to Green Willow's home, where he finds "only the stumps of three willows: / two old, / one young," is a dimension of hidden meaning introduced. This lyrical epiphany is further complicated by the counter-tale printed on the inside of the sleeves (pages glued together top and bottom), whose main thrust is the validation of love by power in the form of the Prince intercepting the message, then by an act of grace allowing the love between Tomotada and Green Willow to flower. The ironic play on "sleeve" ("If I hide the dawn with my sleeve, / then, perhaps my lord / will still be here in the morning") makes overt a concern with the hiding and deception which the private intimacies of emotion require; that is, the inner life of feelings is shaped by its collisions with the outer world of power and death. That Tomotada "keeps her hidden / away from curious eyes" while they are in Kyoto in order to save his own life narratively corroborates this. Inner and outer strands are physically as well as narratively interwoven to add further resonances to the tale.

The second section of Five Kwaidan consists of two related tales, "O-Tei," which is printed on outer sheets, and "Yuki- Onna," discovered on inner sheets in the sleeves. "O-Tei," as with the first tale, is a love story with a supernatural ending causing a plot epiphany. This one occurs when O-Tei and Nagao meet up after a separation of seventeen years and then she faints, after which she remembers nothing of her meeting in the inn with her long-estranged lover/husband. This is the outer tale, whose chief plot device is love, death, resurrection, and subsequent recognition. Nagao's memory ("every day / you set offerings / before my memorial tablet / hence I returned") guarantees the possibility of love fulfilled; however, the mystery which is also necessary is not abrogated by the rituals of memory, since O-Tei's mysterious death, resurrection, and fainting are never accounted for.

This sequence is reversed in the inner tale, "Yuki-Onna." In O-Yuki, the Snow Woman who is Minokichi's nemesis and later wife, the other-worldly is present almost from the beginning, and her double pledge (violated by both Minokichi and herself when she spares his life a second time) is based on the ever-present possibility of dissolution. In her own case, she abandons her husband in a kind of death which seals the chance for love in this world. By having made the inner outer through revealing what he had been enjoined to conceal, Minokichi introduces death into the world of labor and desire.

"Hoichi" and "Akinosuke", which form section three, introduce respectively the closely interrelated themes of the powers of art, and of reality and appearance, both informed (as with the previous tales) by the implicit inner/outer dialectic. Hoichi, "the blind singer of epics," is saved from the call of the Taira ghosts by the combined powers of his abilities as an artist and of "the holy sutras / of the Doctrine of the Emptiness of Phenomena" which his patron's servant paints all over his body (except his ears, which are then torn off). "Only the strength of your songs could have kept you / from moving," the patron tells him. The outer world as revealed by the sense of vision is complemented by the inner world (ghosts, music, emotion) as uncovered by hearing; both are conjoined in the physical figure of Hoichi, whose art is based on sound and the tribal memory inherent in the epic transformation of historical consciousness which the singer embodies. This in effect creates social reality through ensuring its continuation in the cultural forms by which a people comes to know itself. Appropriately, the tale begins on outer pages and ends on inner pages, as the deceptiveness of one's visual perceptions is transmuted into the certainties of art, the medium in which inner and outer are blended.

The same is true in reverse for "Akinosuke," which begins on inner pages and ends on outer. An example of the dream vision so popular in Medieval European literary traditions ("Pearl"), this tale presents a full set of life experiences, culminated by withdrawal from the world of power, family, and society into that of contemplation, which then is turned inside out, revealing the former as Akinosuke's dream; the implicit moral is Lope de Vega's: "la vida es sueño." What makes this tale more than a rehash of the old theme is precisely its presentation in conjunction with "Hoichi," thereby emphasizing the transformative power of art as a humanizing bridge between inner and outer, reality and appearance, life and dream. In "Akinosuke," the very telling of the story, just as it is told both qualitatively and chronologically, physically and metaphysically exemplifies its theme, which then becomes truly inseparable from its mode of expression, effectively nullifying the common critical division of a unified aesthetic experience into components which make discourse possible.

Young's work as a poet, book artist, critic, and publisher (Membrane Press) have kept him long in the forefront of developments in the vast small-press network. Production experiments in typography, layout, support, and overall book design have enabled him to explore graphic/physical potentialities of the book medium. These have varied, for example, from his paper screenfold, calligraphy-like renderings of Wang Wei and Tu Fu, entitled Clouds Over Fortjade, to his performance book for The Four Horsemen, with pages made of unfinished two-by-fours. [5] As I have indicated above, such experiments cannot easily be dismissed, since as Benjamin has said, ". . . it as magical experiments with words, not as artistic babbling, that we must understand the passionate phonetic and graphical transformational games that have run through the whole literature of the avant-garde. . ." and ". . . nowhere do these two metaphor and image collide so drastically and so irreconcilably as in politics." [6] Adorno concurs: ". . . creative artists are compelled by force of circumstance to experiment," and "art today is virtually impossible unless it is engaged in experimentation."[7] It is precisely in the nexus comprised of extreme graphic and oral disjunction that the avant-garde's critical challenge of politics resides.

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1 Open Letter, 5, #7, 1984, p. 32.

2 Rimma and Valery Gerlovin, "Samizdat Art," in Russian Samizdat Art, ed. Charles Doria, New York: Willis Locker & Owens, 1986, p. 67.

3 "A Slap in the Face of Public Taste: The Art of the Book and the Russian Avant-Garde," Ibid., p. 12.

4 Tucson: Chax Press, 1986. Letterpress, Garamond on Nideggen and Chiri papers with lace Japanese papers for endsheets, unpaginated.

5 For illustrations of this and other unique books, see Young's article entitled "Bookforms" in New Wilderness Letter, 11 (December, 1982), pp. 25-30.

6 Walter Benjamin, "Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia," in Reflections, New York: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1978, pp. 184, 191.

7 Theodore Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984, pp. 35, 55.

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Light and Dust Mobile Anthology of Poetry