May 5, 2009
Luxurious Artisanal Bibliophile Dada
Sweet Gods of Heaven and Earth! It’s the best bookporn post ever!
That’s Xu Bing’s Tian Shu (Book From Heaven). Rachel Leow writes:
To make [the four hundred books and fifty-foot scrolls], Xu painstakingly carved Chinese characters into square woodblocks, in just the way his ancient printing predecessors would have done, had them typeset and printed, and the printed pages mounted and bound into books and scrolls.
The result is a truly spectacular display of bookmanship ó volumes fit for an emperorís library. Yet, thereís the astonishing, Borgesian catch: Out of the three or four thousand Chinese characters used in these volumes and scrolls, not a single one of them is a real Chinese character.
They are made up of recognizable radicals and typical atomic components of Chinese characters, but Xu laboured to ensure that while they all retain the unmistakable look of Chinese script, they are all, so to speak, nonsense. They do not exist in any dictionary, and do not mean anything. Chinese speakers and non-Chinese speakers alike approach the books with the same sense of wonder at their beauty, and the same sense of incomprehension at their content ó though, for Chinese readers, the frustrated impulse to read might detract somewhat from their aesthetic enjoyment of the art piece. Iíve heard that some Chinese readers have spent days attempting to locate a character they can read ó to no avail. Itís a piece of art whose meaning is to be found in its meaninglessness.
I want to GO to there.
Instead, you should go to a historian’s craft to check out more images of Xu Bing’s two books (there is also a Book of Earth) and read every gorgeous word Rachel’s written about them. These are the internet equivalent of being touched by “beautiful calligraphy, by brushstroked words on fine paper, by sensuous lines of scripts that dance provocatively on the page, inviting comprehension.” You wish you wrote this well this early in the morning. (It’s still early in Malaysia, right?)
It’s a completely different tradition, but I’m reminded of Augustine’s theory of signs. For Augustine, a sign (whether a word or a symbol) is a tool, an instrument. Signification shows that things aren’t used for their own sake, but in reference to something else. This chain of signification and interpretation goes all the way up to God, who is the only thing completely sufficient in Himself, that CAN’T be made to signify anything else. Since everything else is deficient, anything that isn’t God, whether a word, a gesture, a picture, a dream, stars, a person, an animal, a tree, usw., can be turned into a sign. In fact, it HAS to be taken as a sign, at least in this broad sense of an instrument pointing to another purpose; otherwise, you’re performing a kind of idolatry, taking a deficient thing to be self-sufficient and giving to it what you should reserve for God alone. At this point, Augustine’s semiotics dovetails with his ethics; we shouldn’t delight too much in food for its own sake, sex for its own sake — in short, in pleasure, except insofar as it helps us to serve a godly and natural purpose.
So there is a universal potential for signfication. Any worldly thing can be a sign. But to refuse signification, to delight in the pleasure of the letter itself, is an act of rebellion.
Rachel’s language may be more instrumental than Xu Bing’s, but it’s no less of a pleasure to read.