The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili
is thought to be by Franceso Colonna, is considered one of the most beautiful books ever published, and also the most bizarre and inscrutable. It is an astounding example of bravura typography only half a century after Gutenberg, the work of Aldus Manutius in Venice in December 1499. (Manutius is also the inventor of Italic type.) Intended for Quattrocento aristocrats, it also draws from a humanist tradition of arcane writings. The text is written in a bizarre Latinate Italian full of mysterious invented words based on Latin and Greek roots. The illustrations include Arabic and Hebrew words, and the author invented new languages when the ones available to him were inadequate. The story, set in 1467, consists mostly of precious and elaborate dreams within dreams of courtly love.
Helen Barolini has written informatively about it in Aldus and His Dream Book (Italica Press, 2011) and has herself written an interesting collection of stories entitled More Italian Hours (Bordighera, 2001), poetry, essays, and a book on courtly love.
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: “The Strife of Love in a Dream”
More Italian Hours & Other Stories
This is, I will suggest, the first artists book. Of course, virtually every manuscript book before it might count — books of hours, the Lindisfarne Bible — and perhaps Gutenberg’s own Bible. But I ask you to notice the difference, indeed the chasm, between the work of Aldus and Colonna and what we now call by the name of artist’s book. I ask you to notice the ambition of this book and compare it to the nakedly capitalist livre d’artiste.
I ask you notice the little art of our times — the starved and etiolated writing of Raymond Carver (compare that other minimalist Hemingway), the meager efforts of new MFAs constrained by foolish and timid injunctions to “write what you know” and “show, don’t tell” as if we were all in kindergarten and had been on summer vacation to the next village. I ask you to notice the imitative and derivative bricolage of our theatre and ask you to compare it to O’Neill or Ionesco. I ask you —
Nertz. Get thee to a monastery, and meditate on these things.
But wait. Without attempting to make a special case for Aldus’s book, what is the status now of the values it embodies? I’ve been re-reading Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! What strikes me is how much my own writing owes to Faulkner, and how often my writing has been disapproved of for that very reason. This is not your Elmore Leonard “Ten Rules for Writing” stuff. This a taste for elaborate expression, words and wordplay, for their own sake. This is not Walter Gropius, this is Antoni Gaudi. This is the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili.
There’s another issue. So many people want to write these days — well, perhaps they always have, but with the advent of e-books and self-publishing, now they do. And they do it before they have learned anything of the basic craft of writing. Yet they all want to begin with a novel, the hardest and most complex fictional medium. It’s as if someone who did know how to hammer a nail were t set out to build a mansion. As if someone were to pick up a book of Dickenson’s poetry and say “Heck, this doesn’t look so hard.” Or, as so many people did say in the early days of Abstract Expressionism — “My kid could do that.”
And perhaps those are more common ideas than we might think. The underlying and controlling assumption in so many wannabe authors is that writing is easy. Anyone can do it. And they expect to teach themselves how to write in their spare time. I have to ask, what did they do to do the job by which they get their living? Some years getting an education and then an MBA, perhaps? An apprentice period, and then time working their way up the employment ladder in order to have enough free time to even consider writing something? And — and here we get to the mud — what have they read? Elmore Leonard? Maybe a little Hemingway (who is way harder and more complex than he looks). Fifty Shades of Gray? The da Vinci Code?
Faulkner? I don’t think so. The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili I don’t think so.
Come aaahn. I’ll save the jeremiad for later. Live a little.
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