Friday, January 29, 2010

The Lay of the Hunted Pig

A specimen of dialect poetry, collected from Berkshire, England and included in The Scouring of the White Horse (1859) by Thomas Hughes.

The White Horse of Uffington (formerly in Berkshire, though it is now incorporated within Oxfordshire) is a prehistoric hill figure once often popularly associated with King Alfred, though it's apparently very much older. In order to keep the figure from being obscured, it must be periodically "scoured" of encroaching turf and replenished with chalk. The scourings, which have been conducted at irregular intervals for centuries, have been accompanied by various games and festivities. One of the games, at least in the mid-19th century, was a greased pig contest. Needless to say, this was likely more fun for the human participants and spectators than it was for the luckless porker.

The stanzas that follow should be fairly comprehensible if you understand that the standard English voiceless f and s sounds have become voiced v and z. Peg = pig, wur = was, dree = three, un = him, etc. Backswryd (backsword) was some kind of fighting contest involving sticks; spwoort = sport.

"Vathers, mothers, mothers' zons!
You as loves yer little wuns!
Happy pegs among the stubble,
Listen to a tale of trouble;
Listen, pegs in yeard and stye,
How the Barkshire chaps zard I.

"I wur barn at Kingstone-Lisle,
Wher I vrolicked var a while,
As vine a peg as e'er wur zeen
(One of a litter o' thirteen)
Till zome chaps wi' cussed spite
Aimed ov I to make a zite,
And to have a 'bit o' vun,'
Took I up to Uffington.

"Up, vorights the Castle mound
They did zet I on the ground;
Then a thousand chaps, or nigh,
Runned and hollered arter I —
Ther, then, I, till I wur blowed,
Runned and hollered all I knowed,
When, zo zure as pegs is pegs,
Eight chaps ketched I by the legs,
Two to each — 't is truth I tell 'ee —.
Dree more clasped I round the belly !
Under all they fellers lyin' —
Pegs! — I thought as I wur dyin'.

"But the Squire (I thenks I zee un),
Vanner Whitfield ridin' wi' un,
Fot I out o' all thuck caddle,
Stretched athurt the varmer's zaddle —
Bless 'em, pegs in yeard and stye,
Them two vrends as stuck to I.

"Barkshire men, vrom Hill and Vale,
All as ever hears this tale,
If to spwoort you be inclined,
Plaze to bear this here in mind —
Pegs beant made no race to win,
Be zhart o' wind, and tight o' skin,
Dwont 'ee hunt 'em, but instead
At backswyrd break each other's yead
Cheezes down the manger rowl —
Or try and clim the greasy powl.

"Pegs! in stubble yeard and stye,
May you be never zard like I,
Nor druv wi greasy ears and tail,
By men and bwoys drough White Horse Yale."

The reference to rolling cheeses down "the manger" alludes to a race in which participants run pell-mell down a steep hill into a nearby depression sometimes supposed to be the White Horse's feeding ground. The winner gets a cheese wheel, which as Hughes wryly observes must be rather a hard variety to survive the descent.

Illustration: "Chasing the Greased Pig" by Richard Doyle, from The Scouring of the White Horse by Thomas Hughes. Image scan by George P. Landow, courtesy of the Victorian Web.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

On Paper

Woodcut from Basle, Switzerland, late 17th c. According to paper historian Dard Hunter, writing in 1930, "the engraving has never been used in any book on papermaking."

It's probably in some way hypocritical or self-contradictory or at least ironic to use a blog post to electronically disseminate a defense of the indispensable special qualities of paper artifacts, but then you likely wouldn't be reading this otherwise, so here goes.

Compared to many technologies (pottery, weaving, writing), true papermaking is a relative newcomer, invented, it is said, in China sometime around 105 AD by one Cai Lun. (The significantly older technologies of papyrus and parchment do not represent true paper, as they are not made from pulped fibers but from continuous sheets or strips of natural material.) As with many industries, paper manufacture has gone through a predictable cycle, starting with a long period of relative stasis in which it was labor-intensive, small in scale, and highly variable in terms of the quality of the finished product, followed by major technological advances (the replacement of the hand mould and press by a continuous rotary belt process in the first half of the 19th century) that led to dramatic increases in production and affordability accompanied by standardization and, in general, cheapening of quality. Finally, the technology is now -- or so one is told -- threatened with obsolescence, at least in part, but, paradoxically and perhaps nostalgically has been revived in something resembling its traditional form by artisans for the specialty or luxury market.

Paper does have its drawbacks. It's highly vulnerable to fire and water and its manufacture requires a steady stream of natural materials. In China and Japan paper was traditionally directly made from a variety of plant sources (and still is, by artisans) but in Europe the material of choice was recycled rags, themselves originally composed of linen, cotton, or other textile fibers. In the 19th century a burgeoning readership led to a shortage of raw materials and the adoption of wood pulp, which tends to be acidic and to deteriorate rapidly over time. For this reason the paper in books published before the 1800 is often in better shape than paper produced only a few decades ago. More recently an attempt has been made to improve durability by using acid-free paper, at least in books that are considered to have potential lasting value.

But enough potted history. Much more authoritative information can be obtained from a variety of sources (see endnotes). When well-made and protected, paper is surprisingly stable. It's certainly a more long-lasting medium than magnetic recording tape and may be more durable than optical media like CDs and DVDs (check back in a hundred years). Moreover, the readability of paper does not depend on special hardware or software that can itself become obsolete (floppy disc drive in that laptop, anyone?); it requires only a human reader trained to interpret a certain system of signs.

Electronic dissemination of documents is cheaper than printing on paper just as modern printing and papermaking technology is cheaper than the handcraft practices that prevailed for centuries. If paper still had to be made by hand there'd be a lot less of it and hence fewer and more expensive books, newspapers, and so on. That would certainly not be a good thing, just as it would be a shame and a mistake to forgo the revolutionary possibilities of electronic dissemination. But efficiency has costs as well as its benefits, and one of them is the loss of texture that occurs anytime a highly labor- and material-dependent technology is replaced by one that can be endlessly reduplicated with minimal effort.

Texture is not "content" or "information" -- at least not in a simple, reductive sense -- and can't easily be digitized. It creates complications, wrinkles. Texture -- even the texture of a flat sheet of paper -- is three-dimensional. Big ideas, on the other hand, are two-dimensional, and need to be so to make order out of chaos. But the world is always more complicated than such systems imply, and the apprehension of texture is essential in order to reveal the existence of things the big ideas gloss over. Texture isn't necessarily physical; a story, an idea, an algorithm, a digital artwork, can be textural if they create three dimensions where there had previously only been two.

In the case of paper, there often are specific physical aspects that may be of interest. A book might have little intrinsic value, at least to a particular reader, in terms of its subject matter, but the chain lines and watermarks left by paper moulds, the irregularities and stray fibers, the untrimmed deckle edges, may still have value for the evidence they provide about the system of manufacture that produced the paper and the market and readership that supported its production. Much the same could be said for the materials and decoration of the binding.

There's also the issue of context. To take just one example, you may be able to find a 19th-century New York Times article online, but if you're not at the same time seeing the stories in the adjacent columns, or the ads that may have appeared on the bottom or on the facing the page, you're missing part of the story. For your purposes the text alone may be sufficient, but that's not the same as saying that the other evidence doesn't exist. The truth is, you can't always know, or quantify, the value of texture, and yet it's there, and may be telling us things we want or ought to know.

There's another concern as well. In the course of various researches, several times in the past year I've tapped into Google Books and examined historical materials -- The Jewelers' Circular and Horological Review (1898) and Electrical Worker: Official Journal of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (1914 and 1915), to name two instances -- that I would certainly not have known of, let alone been able to read and quote from, had they not been digitized. Purchasing the originals, if it were even possible to locate them, would have been prohibitively expensive. (A professional historian might well have been able to track them down where they were archived, but I don't have the training or the resources.) Being able to find them was a great boon, but it points up a quandary. These documents were created and circulated on paper, because there was no alternative. How much historical evidence about the 21st-century world is destined to disappear because it is being disseminated in the form of web pages, emails, Word documents, and other electronic forms? How many blogs will be accessible five years, or twenty years, or fifty years from now? (For what it's worth, I keep a hard copy of most of my own posts.) The universal preservation of electronic materials would, of course, create a inconceivable glut of information, most of which would never be examined. My point is that what we create on paper may, ironically, have a better chance of long-term survival than the output of all of our sophisticated technological novelties.

In the past year I've often reproduced and written about documents and images that were originally created on paper, some of them uncommon or even unique. I value the opportunity to present them here, just as I enjoy the work that others do in documenting the things they've discovered. But we need to remind ourselves that with everything that's shared, something is also being held back. To get the whole story and appreciate these things for their beauty and their evidence of history and all that they may have to say, you have to hold them in your hands.

A few endnotes:

The Gibbon of papermaking was Dard Hunter of Chillicothe, Ohio, who not only traveled through China, Japan, and other regions tracing its history but ran his own paper mill, cast his own type, and printed and bound his own books. His handmade books are collector's items and worth a small fortune (I've never even seen one), but there is a Dover paperback edition of his definitive Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft. A biography of Hunter by Cathleen Baker, By His Own Labor, was published by Red Hydra Press in 2000. More information on the history of paper can be found at the Robert C. Williams Paper Museum at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

The writer Nicholson Baker created a furor a few years ago when he published Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, in which he inveighed against the deaccessioning by libraries of books and other documents that were microfilmed or digitized and then destroyed, a practice supposedly justified by the greater accesibility, reduced storage requirements, and greater permanence of the new media. While Baker may have gotten some things wrong, there's no doubt that some of the activities he described, such as the destruction of rare bound volumes of 1900-era newspapers, color supplements and all, were little short of cultural crimes. Baker founded an organization, the American Newspaper Repository, to rescue some of the orphaned volumes; the Repository's holdings have since been acquired by Duke University.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Notes for a Commonplace Book (5)

Carla Rippey:

Whatever our senses pick up is carried to the brain by two pathways, one conscious and rational, and another unconscious and innate. While these perceptions travel toward the cortex, where they will be integrated with other data captured from the environment and with previous associations, they are also traveling toward the amygdala, a much more primitive part of the brain. Sending something to the amygdala is like sending a digital image in low resolution: it arrives right away, but it’s blurry. In no way is it a precise and well-processed image like the one that is formulated in the cortex. It is, we might say, a dirty image. It’s these dirty images that make us confuse, just for an instant, a garden hose with a snake.

I have the idea that whenever an image attracts me, whenever I happen upon a photograph with which I feel some sort of connection, for example, it’s because the image resonates in me at a subconscious level: it generates the same “dirty image” as something I have already stored in my brain.

As a result, the archives of possible material for my work are made up by images that have already triggered a reaction in me. Examining them dispassionately, now ensconced in the "high road" of clear perceptions and conscious associations, my job is to pinpoint the disturbing element and highlight it by means of cropping, the juxtaposition of images, or the construction of a collage. The interpretation is then refined through its translation to drawing, printmaking or painting. In a sort of morphing, I must retransmit it with my own energy.

I like the term "dirty images". They are dirty because their reading is ambivalent, but dirtiness is also associated with the erotic, the perverse, the disturbing, and that which is repressed and feared -- all elements which pertain to the interpretation of my work. After all, one could postulate that I traffic in stolen images: it’s a dirty business.

From Carla Rippey: Dibujo, pintura y grabado (Taller Gráfica Bordes)


Into my room a devil came.
He appeared outside on the fire-escape;
no ordinary burglar, as if through air
he lifted a leg through the window-glass
and pulled his black-winged body after.

As he stole across the room I woke --
too late, he held me down.
For once he gets inside your room
a devil cannot be fought.

What did he bring? All that devils have:
despair, confusion, memory of loss.
He left them there with me.
then departed for wherever it is that devils dwell.

So I live in his aftermath,
damned, no remedy.
Devil of cities, I cannot carry this burden of years.
Return, and take back what is yours.


Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Map of Slavic Europe

This fold-out map (it's one of three in the book) is from Russian and the Slavonic Languages by W. J. Entwistle and W. A. Morison, a volume in Faber & Faber's Great Languages series. There's probably nothing here that would be news to a philologist or a Slavic historian, and I don't know to what degree the situation may have altered since the book was published in 1949, but it's interesting to have the extent and diversity of Slavic diffusion displayed in graphic form.

The big gap to the west of the Black Sea is the territory occupied by speakers of Romanian (a Romance language) and Hungarian (Finno-Ugric). Among other things, the map illustrates the little pockets stranded by the shifting of borders and the back and forth of migrations. Some of those pockets must now be extinct, like the "Wendish Slovenes of Lake Leba" (not to be confused with the inhabitants of the former Yugoslavian Slovenia, far to the south) who were said by the authors to have already dwindled to some 200-250 individuals.

Of the book's co-authors, William J. Entwistle was the general editor of the Great Languages series, succeeding L. R. Palmer. He was apparently not strictly speaking a Slavic specialist, as his title was King Alfonso XIII Professor of Spanish Studies in the University of Oxford, Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford. Entwistle was also responsible for the volume in the series that was devoted to Spanish. Morison was a Slavicist at the University of London. Their work was performed under less than optimal conditions, but the combination of the recent devastation across Europe and the onset of the Cold War must have lent the book extra relevance, even urgency.
This book has been written under great stress, and cannot but show many faults. The war has absorbed the services of almost all the small band of competent students of Slavonic. One author has been wholly engulfed in public business, and the other partly, during the composition of the work, which has been elaborated too often in hotel bedrooms or railway carriages. Long neglect has left our libraries, despite the gallant efforts of the librarians, deficient in Slavonic works. Not infrequently we have been unable to consult essential works, and have had to rely on our own discretion.
Several of the projected volumes in the Great Languages series were never completed; the project seems to have petered out around 1960, though some of the individual books have since been reprinted by other publishers.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Katazome calendar: Takeshi Nishijima

This folio of stenciled prints is the work of a katazome artist who designed a number of calendars that were produced from 1969 or 1970 to 1980 (and perhaps outside that range of years as well). If he is the same Takeshi Nishijima listed on Artfacts.Net then he was born in 1929 and died in 2003.

According to the descriptive text that accompanies the folio, Nishijima was both a professor of art at Kyoto University and "a graphic and textile designer [who] exhibited in numerous one man shows and won the coveted Grand Prize at the Kyoto Art Exhibit." He was associated with Haruo Kuriyama of the Wazome Kogei company, which was probably the publisher of this calendar. I've been told that Kuriyama was a friend of Keisuke Serizawa, the best known katazome artist, who produced calendars annually beginning in 1946.

Given the similarity in technique and layout between the work of the two calendar makers, Nishijima may well have studied with Serizawa; if so, he was also effectively a competitor, as Serizawa's calendars continued to appear through the 1970s. His work isn't as intricate as Serizawa's, which shows a greater fondness for rich geometrical ornament, and it appears to have received little attention outside of Japan. These calendars were, nevertheless, clearly aimed at Western audiences, as all the names of the months are in English.

Grateful acknowledgment is due to the printmaker Brian Garner for providing these images. I have cropped them square for the web, but they were printed on handmade paper and the bottom edges are in fact untrimmed. Below each image I have added the interpretive text for each month that was provided by the publisher on a separate sheet (see the last image below).

"During January people come to pray at Heian Shrine, Kyoto, for peace and good luck throughout the year."

"February brings tranquility in Plum Tree Park at Tsukigase, Kyoto."

"March is the time when water orchids rise to impart a springlike charm and grace."

"In April the tree peony is a delightful harbinger of the joys of spring."

"The rose which blooms in May is the universal symbol of love."

"June tells of farm dwellings at the castle town, near Nara prefecture."

"As summer progresses into July we are present as a storm passes, with clouds running at the ridge."

"The first yield of fruit in August tends to refresh the eye as well as the palate."

"September is the month for typhoons. Here willow trees sway in the wind at Nijo Castle, Kyoto, to protest the approaching violence."

"October's autumn flowers are handsomely framed by a Chinese jar of the Sung era."

"The sunset symbolizes approach of the year's end. The landscape of Japanese inland sea Seto is November's setting."

"As December arrives we note that Kyoto's farmers have completed their work. The harvest is in and we see a serene community of farmhouses."

Here are some katazome links:
  • Explanations of the technique at Wikipedia and by John Marshall.

  • George Baxley has information on Keisuke Serizawa's calendars, with numerous examples.

  • Kit Eastman is an American illustrator who employs the katazome technique.

  • Another artist, M. Joan Lintault, has several interesting posts on her work with the technique.

  • The Japan Society has organized an outstanding exhibition dedicated to Keisuke Serizawa, which runs through January 17, 2010. A catalog is available from Yale University Press.

  • And finally, my earlier posts, with illustrations of a full calendar set possibly by Serizawa, another set that is probably by Takeshi Nishijima, and a review of the Japan Society show.

Friday, January 01, 2010

The Frogs' Discovery

When I first picked up this little pamphlet of Japanese folk stories, I thought it might belong to the Tourist Library series issued in the years leading up to the Second World War by the Japanese Government Railways. Although a bit smaller than those books, it has a similar pasted-on cover illustration, onion-skin wrapper, and layout, and was obviously designed for visitors from the West.

In fact it was published after the war, in 1950, and I haven't been able to find any record of the book, its author Fujiya Iida, the Bunka Pony Series in which it was the first and perhaps only volume, or of the publishing company Bunkaen. It may have been a self-published or family production, as Y. Iida, presumably a relative of Fujiya, is listed on the title page (or colophon, if you like, as it's in the back of the book) as "publisher." It was printed by Nihon Dempo Tsushinsha, which Wikipedia identifies as the Japan Telegraphic News Agency.

This copy is signed, both in Roman script and in characters, and is dated Dec. 25, 1952, so perhaps it was a Christmas purchase. The original price on the title page appears to have been ¥100, but this has been overstamped to ¥80, and a little red outline of a volcano has also been impressed next to the author's name.

In addition to the cover image, which I rather like, there are two fairly dull interior plates, printed in a bluish ink. The cover and the title story both read "Frogs' Discovery," without "The," which appears only on the title page / colophon. Five additional tales are included: "Silence Competition," "Wrestling a Water-Imp," "An Inelastic Answer," "The Cheated Foxes," and "The Panacea."