Inventory of the Obscure: The Gathered Adventures of Finnegan Woodsworth


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There are no branches, it casts a shadow but offers no shade. Its front is menacing, like that of Coatlique, its front protected by a garment of spear points. Indeed, its identity is indeterminate - it could be a feathered serpent, a crocodile standing erect with its scales menacing, a cactus-like plant, protected by spines.

There are spheres at its base, which could as easily be missiles as fruit. There are appendages, which could imply arms or branches. The figure seems to wear some sort of headpiece. My feeling about this bristling object, erect, defiant, dangerous, implies a world in which everything - humans, animals, plants - have to defend themselves under condition of constant threat - and have to prevail or be prevailed over in the ritual struggles a relentless cosmos demands.

I can think of nothing like it in contemporary sculpture - a compact text of cosmological meaning, prickly, proud, fruitful, part serpent, part tree, part weapon. Aztec civilization was calendrically driven, and its rituals were believed necessary to keep the universe from being destroyed. The world had seen four ages come and go, and the fear was that the fifth - the present age - would be apocalyptically destroyed, allegedly by female monsters of the sort exemplified by Coaclique.

The great Calendar Stone is in some way Coatlicue's pendant. Nissen's Katun, through its verticality, appears to be a cognate of Ahuacatl, and my first impression of it was that of an animated figure, lifting a shield, which we see in overlapping stages of upward movement, while an arm or arm-like appendage is extended outward in a gesture of warning or salutation.

In fact, its title refers to the four-year unit of time used in Mesoamerica, and the overlapping tongue-like forms convey the passing of the years, rising or sinking, according to ones philosophy of time's passage in the larger scheme of history. However we read it, it has, the work has, aesthetically, an art deco rhythm, an ascending upwardness, easily enough explained, formally, when we reflect on the way Aztec modulations lent themselves to the decorative schemes of art deco in the s, in the design of lamps and columns - or pieces of sculpture by Brancusi or the Futurists- or in the design of fast automobiles and the flirty undulations of jazz-age dresses.

It is not, however, an instance of style retro on Nissen's part, who has revived the formal strategies of Aztec art that happen to coincide with the language of art deco and its need to convey through its art and design the speed and sexuality of modern life. What it meant in the s, when Nissen's sculpture achieved its maturity, is another story altogether. My sense is that it is infused with affinities between the state of constant warfare that seemed to be our destiny in the late twentieth century, and the end of the world vision that colored daily life and its expectations in the last days of the Aztecs, before their culture was ended by invaders from a world they had no way of understanding - a real life manifestation of what goes forward today in the fantasies of science fiction.

Admittedly, that is just the way I see it. A third verticality is embodied in Heliotropo - "Sunflower" - which of course is that flower whose radiant face is always turned toward the light and hence lends itself to a religious interpretation, under which it, as it were, gazes - until it withers - at the source of its being and of all living beings. It is in no sense, therefore, an arbitrary reading of the work that it evokes, for Nissen at least, a crucifixion, with its arms stretching up to the agony of its suspension.

I immediately saw it, for my part, as evoking the great Rondonini Pieta, in which Michelangelo carved from an ancient column the Madonna and her for the moment dead Son. The two readings share an identity - two stages in the death of a savior god. In Michelangelo's work, Mary is of course hooded, which feels echoed in Heliotropo - but in either case, the arc over the figure has to be read as a halo.

Yet we must beware too rigid a reading, for it would stretch interpretation too far to read the same arch in Ahuacatl as a nimbus. In general, Nissen's work implies a field of meaning, rather than an exact one-to-one correspondence between sign and signification. And there is always the possibility that a form was put in place to complete the syntax of the work - as "something needed" without contributing some separate meaning of its own.

But I think that the general sense of the implied field is consistent in its cosmological range - of a precarious order, of bellicosity, of risks and threats and cataclysmic consequences if things do not go right - which is the consistent and palpable message of the Mesoamerican form of life in a universe in which gods and warriors are engaged in rituals perceived as far more important in their consequences than a single life or a single death. The captive who gives up his heart as the victim of a sacrifice is entirely aware that he is making a contribution to the overall harmony of things.

The underdetermination of specific meanings is nowhere more evident than in a group of volcanoes that in my view are Nissen's major achievement in the s. Paricutin is a four-sided pyramid, a stylized mountain. Six plumes of flame - or smoke - rise from its geometrical crater, doubling the work's height. The work conveys through its form the sense of a brazier, as an accessory of sacrifice. There is a flight of steps up one side, as in the stepped-pyramids of Yucatan, used by priests, ascending and descending in the exercise of their ritual enactments.

It is at once a natural and a architectural form - a mountain, a pyramid, an altar, with nature, religion, and art collaborating in the preservation of the cosmic order. Vermiform tubes, writhe out of the crater and down the slopes, and three cylinders and an arch at the base perhaps implies a village precariously placed at the foot of the thundering, shaking, sulphurous, devouring, flambant opening into the earth's interior. The work stands higher than Nissen himself, in one picture photographed next to it, so its scale is commensurate with its power. What this illustration makes us appreciate is that scale does not imply size in any of the great pieces of the s.

They could be realized in any dimension, but lose nothing of their implicit power when physically executed as a table-top sculpture. The work is monumental, whatever its size. One of Nissen's bronze sculptures has a meaning that might be lost on those whose knowledge of Mesoamerican history is not as deep and rich as his. It is inspired by a "chinampa" - a kind of floating garden - rows of which served an agricultural purpose in the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, before the conquest of Mexico. The chinampas were constructed of reeds and rushes, cemented together with mud from the lake bottom, which made a soil rich in nutrients, producing a crop sufficient to help feed a large population.

In Aztec times, rows of chinampas floated on the surface of a lake, allowing for fishing in the channels between the rafts, and in a system of canals that still exist in Xochimilcho. A typical "chinampa" by Nissen will have basket-like motif of interwoven strips, reflecting the way the artificial islands were constructed, some forms that reflect agricultural products - like melons or squashes - and perhaps a hut-like edifice for shelter and what may refer to a dock. There are several variations of the chinampa theme, which exemplify, to my mind, the "flat-bed" mode of composition - a term introduced by Leo Steinberg to characterize the work of Robert Rauschenberg.

Like all of Nissen's sculptures, the chinampas draw inspiration from the artist's peers in the modern and post-modern era. But the chiampas also celebrate the skills of nameless and forgotten artisans - weaving and interweaving, shaping actual islands out of vegetable matter and muck, putting art to work in the service of life and the sustaining welfare of the larger community. What artists of the modern world can say as much? Nissen's sculptures characteristically use a vocabulary of assembled flat planes, with appended geometrical forms - cylinders, spheres, smaller truncated pyramids with openings, arcs - and irregular non-geometrical forms, like knobs, rings, hooks, sometimes densely arrayed, like scales or armor.

His style is immediately recognizable. The objects formed by these components are not always easily identifiable - Quetzal, for example, looks as if its is formed of sets of three curved brake-pads, which could, in the aggregate, stand for waves, or palm leaves.

The sculptures have a simplified moderne look, explainable, as I have suggested, through the fact that art deco - or art moderne - already drew upon Aztec.

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They have, often, a squat power, and a beautiful bronze patina, real or implied. The chiampas are raft-like platforms, with various impressed patterns, suggestive of weaving and plating, on which are arrayed sculptural forms of the sort just described, suggesting farm structures.

They feel like miniature settlements, and carry the artist's sculptural language into a new dimension. A different if affine feeling is conveyed by Nissen's variations on a theme encountered in nature - the Limulus Pulyphemus or Horseshoe Crab, whose discarded shells resemble readymade Aztec artifacts, familiar to beachcombers along the New England shores.

Nissen sees these as having the form and bristling ornamentation of helmets - a shape that has remained unaltered for two hundred million years - the oldest living animal, in the sense that living specimens are morphologically the same as the earliest known fossils. Nissen decided, in an inspired moment, to design news shells for Limulus Polyphemus - a new line of helmet designs, as if for members of a neo-Aztec order, interested in millinery intimidation. So there are blade form Limulus 1, worm forms Limulus 7 , and even the tongue-forms Limulus 5 , lending support to my initial reading of Katun as a warrior.

An exhibition of the Limulus variations is like a catalog of Nissen's forms, put to new uses. Sometimes, the recycling of forms leads to new and even amazing results. Some of the feeling of Quetzal, for example has been massively amplified in the sculptural mural, The Red Sea, installed at the Centro Maguen David in Mexico City, achieved in It consists of whitish flat curled planes - like shavings - in various widths, growing increasingly wider in both directions from the center, where the "waters' have been divided, creating a path for the Children of Israel to pass safely between walls of water, across the floor of the Red Sea.

To have built a raging sea, divided by the implied might of Jehovah, is an act of artistic daring beyond anything in Nissen's already daring corpus, and unmatched by anything I know of in art. It is a masterpiece of religious art, of church decoration, of mural sculpture - and it is worthy of the tremendous Mesoamerican tradition from which Nissen has drawn his inspiration for four decades, and it is the culmination of a brilliant career. He is, in addition, a prestigious and influential thinker widely ready by artist, critics, art historians and philosophers or art.

Pornography literally means the description of our debauche. But what is literal in the world of symbolic forms? A letter is a litter after Joyce brings words the same cunning ambivalence and stunrung corporeality we happily associate with the sexual act. Words and sexes are no longer literal: verb and body are subjected to constant metamorphosis. Do we come out of this wiser but sadder? Cunning stunts leaves us to.

We are separated from the stunning cunts and the treacherous pricks by the cunning stunts and the 1echerous tricks of the artist: We see but cannot touch these bodies. Like the fruits and the water of Tantalus, forever within his reach, forever receding from his grasp. We can touch only paper and ink. Yet we do touch the image; Italo Calvino's Mr.

Palomar sees mind as skin: A skin touched, seen, remembered. This is true of Brian Nissen's art: the cunning stunt is that we may not physically touch the stunning-cunt, but we can possess it as it too possesses our mind, touches our mind, sees it and tells our mind: You, too,are skin. The picture comes forward to posses us. Nissen asks: Are we ready for this? Must we always be the macho spectator who first sees the work of art, sets a price, and then, only then, unzips his mental fly, brings out his psychic trick and says, O. The macho spectator of the cunning art will even take his bonded cuntcubine to his creasoikonic harem, show her off, and one day sell her at a profit.

She has passed on. She has never reached out to touch her sultan. He believes he has possessed her. From Altamira to Velazquez to Duchamp the cunning stunter asks us to enter the painting only if the painting can simultaneously enter us: this is the bargain. The bull in Altamira can only be had if we accept to share the arena with him: act out a common scene in a common place, a meeting place of bravery and fear. With him: even be gored. Ortegay Gasset saw in Las Meninas a double dynamic of the painting coming to us as we go to it.

Are we willing to see the painter's brush spring hard and bushy between his legs, asking us to pay the price of our pleasure: possessing the painting only if we are possessed by it? Spinning, spunning,: Spanish, spunish stunts: a punished trick, a tarnished prick. The nude descends the staircase towards us; her moving skin is touching, is thinking, is changing like the serpent's, just for us.

She comes renewed as the Spring. We embrace her. She is another: Under her woman's skin, she is the goddess of metamorphoses, Our Lord Xipe Totec, the Aztec divinity of the flayed skin. Wait for the next movement: He will be She again Tlazolteotl, the lady vulture, the goddess who purifies the world as she devours its filth. Are we ready for him? Are we ready for her? This is Nissen's question. Touch it. Do not touch it. It is beautiful. But it is dead. Are we ready for death? Lovers and children do not fear death because death is the only place where they can be together.

Their forbidden childhood and their forbidden passion have eluded them throughout life Death becomes more than their destiny: it is their only chance, it is their unity recovered, disguised as death. Bury it. Save it from the animal's hunger. Spinning stunts: The best works of art, said the surrealist, are imperfect, because they leave much to be desired. Quote W. Blake: "He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.

The perfection of its form is its imperfection: his art does not consciously aspire to permanence, if this be the sign of perfection: It will last. Blake once more: "Eternity is in love with the works of time. This margin is greater in some works than in others. In the case of Nissen, it is actively expressed by an aesthetic and moral attitude: This is passing. What passes is passion. It moves. It desires. Step in. I see these figures acting out their cunning stunts and rapidly moving from pornography to sexuality to the erotic: rapidly leaving behind the descriptive [pornographic] or reproductive [sexual] and entering the erotic [supernatural].

The erotic passage towards death without the renunciation of desire: Eros. The movement in Nissen's figures stirs the stagnant air of the pornographic; it also poisons the blessed air of the reproductive or creative or revolutionary: con bendit! Here's a cuntfidence: Nissen celebrates desire but is not duped by it. For desire, whose suppression breeds blakish brakish pestilence, it is not a song of innocence: We desire in order to suppress the difference between ourselves and the other, between the subject and the object of desire.

But this drive towards unity also contains the seeds of alterity and the dangers of submission, enslavement, possession: We want to change the object of our desire. To make it our-self. To suppress the difference between ourself and the other. The body and the desire to make the impossible possible: to make one of two: Androgyny. To re-unite again and to fail constantly in the attempt, because the object might resist our desire, or act as our subject and desire us more than we desire or wish to be desired by it.

The permutations become infinite: We must choose erotically between the desire for the desire of unity or the desire for the desire of alterity. The Romantic chooses: Let us be whole again. The Orphan accepts: Let us be several again. Modern art is forever posed between the nostalgia of analogy and the temptation of diversity. The eroticism of Brian Nissen is polycultural: an English artist in the Indo-Iberianworld, dealing with desire, discovers that freedom and necessity are not at odds with one another.

This is certainly the strongest and perhaps the most positive tradition of the Indo-Iberian world: it suffuses popular art, painting, and writing with an urgency that it would not have if the desire could be materially accomplished. Since it cannot, we, he, the figure we now see, must leap, execute a triple somersault over the chasm separating the shore of desire from the shore of its accomplishment. Tie a balloon to it.

Tie it to a balloon. A triple somersault, a jump over the void, the mortal danger of desire: Brian Nissen generously extends a safety net below the prancing figures of sex and death, one and other, passage and passion; this net is called fun and games, humor, the ludicrous.

In sex as in carnival, time is suspended; nothing exists, nothing happens, outside the concentrated hijinks on a bed. The same bed on which one day we shall throw back our head and see no more, feel no more. See it fly away with the balloon. It has fallen up. Perception tells me that the earth is flat. Humor and imagination tell me the earth is round. Who wins? The balloon. Nissen's game saves the body thanks to ludicrous representation.

We recall a terrible scene from the film EL where the hero, deranged by jealousy, enters his wife's room armed with rope, chloroform, cotton, thread and needle. She is about to be closed: cuntdemned. Her body will not be open to anyone any more. Your show of shows, choose your own sign: No entrance. No exit. The sewing up of a body is one of the perversions described by Sade in the days of Sodom. No entrance or no exit? Catalysis is the flooding of the body, the occupation of all the erogenous zones in one simultaneous event.

Juan Goytisolo shows me a marquee in a porno movie house on the Boulevard de Clichy in Paris. Does this lady know any arithmetic? For Plotinus, we only know what God is not, never what he is. Therefore the body is a way of knowing God because he is not that. The Cathari heretics tried to rid themselves of their bodies, which they saw not as a creation of God himself but of a second, evil God: The God who gave us what He is Not.

This Satanic deity charged us with the body, encumbered us with the negation of the soul and dared us to exhaust, to drain this material horror so as to become pure souls. Never has a more perfect justification for erotica pleasure been devised: every sexual act becomes a renunciation, a penitence, a cuntegorical imperative Immanuel Kunt.

But since only death will truly exhaust the possibilities of the body, the Albigensian heresy is demanding its own demise, calling forth the exterminating crusade against Albi. The sensual, perhaps even gracious, piecemeal liberation of the soul through the sexual exhaustion of the body will now be offered in one apocalyptic swipe. The body of the Cathari tree is dead. Balance the Encyclopedia Britannica on it. Nuns in colonial Mexico bared their backs and breasts and had their servant girls whip them and call them sacks of excrement, tubes of shit, bags of corruption.

Turn that page and see Brian Nissen three centuries later, substituting the ceremony of sin for the ceremony of fun: The channel of corruption has become the stream of humor, the safety net of both excessive reason and excessive faith, the Erasmian praise of folly that renders both the madness of faith and the madness of reason relative: look at these balancing acts in the Nissean concilium, in Brian's circus of the circuts of play saving our bodies from the extremes of cuntdemnation and cuntversion: Brian's circunts, Nissen's cuntcilium: tied pricks, balancing acts, floating games, Siamese sex, boxing balls, jocula, risa, laughter, rire; pranks; sex sucks!

Stop laughing. Behind every cunning stunt and lecherous lick and dreadful trick in the Nissen book of erotica, lies a cadaver. The headiest motivation of the sexual conjunction [Octavio Paz] is the unsaid certainty that these bodies now entangled in joy will one day be no more: every sexual act is a reminder of death and every death is a reminder that the body is born alone and will die alone, without its earthly companion, the Other.

Not do not touch. There is no more painful fact than this: the bodies we love shall leave us before we want to leave them. We will leave the bodies that love us before they want to leave us. The extraordinary eroticism of certain couplings by Titian or Van Dyck or Manet is that Venus or Cupid, the Arnolfinis or a naked woman out on a picnic with a company of fully clothed men are all groupings of passage.

The group will never be recomposed. All-of the subjects are separated, dead, unknown - radically unknown - to each other by the time that the painting is seen by us. I touch the hand of the woman - Sylvia - I love standing next to me, watching the work of art. Like Venus, Olympia or Arnolfini's wife, she too will sometime be gone without me or I without her. It is inevitable: bodies are not a synchronized reality. We see the painting. We touch. We must affirm, somehow, that our touch, our sexual act, defeats death: The picture before us says so. It also says that all sexual activity is a rehearsal of death.

Brian Nissen's vision of the erotic passion goes beyond our desire to defeat death: the sense of the erotic is to affirm life in death. This is not difficult for him, who coexists with Mexico and Spain, to understand and fulfill. Exhume it Are you sure it has really died? The candy skulls of the Day of the Dead in Mexico [Posada, Eisenstein], the funereal poetry of the Spanish baroque [Quevedo, Gongora] are celebrations of the wholeness of life: There is only life, and death is part of it.

More than the zone [the soul] of the mystical, this is the province [the body] of the erotic. Only Eros goes beyond the sexual function in life, common to all reproductive organisms, and stakes a claim for sex in death. An ant or a panther [as far as we know] does not conceive sex beyond pleasure and reproduction.

To this the child, the lover and the artist add: yes Death. An affirmation: To imagine the loved body beyond its corruption and disappearance? Much more: To save the body from fear of itself. This is what Brian Nissen the artist achieves. He is the Other: theArtist. Only the Other can do this for us. In life or in death. Is there any other answer?

Does the body have any other soul? Does the soul have any other body. Anthropology, when it became prosaic enough to call itself anthropology, brought a distressing challenge to modern art. In those days, the days before linear; history, it said, art was not Art, but an expression of a whole culture. Pre-Hispanic art, for instance, involved total existence. Its painters and writers spoke of cooking, medicine, trading, worshipping, calendar time, heavenly time—every possible aspect of their lives.

The modern artist became unhappily aware of his narrowed prospects and longed to find the rich communal language of ancient: societies. From the late 19th century on, modern artists have performed acts of retrieval, acknowledging the profound human need for spiritual continuity. The modern artist often seeks his touchstone in going back to beginnings.

There can be no art without material from the continuum. The most striking inventions are only readable if the familiar is posed within a new context. Brian Nissen's invention of a modern codex is an act of retrieval that not only revives the ideogram as a rich bearer of meaning, but also opens out to acknowledge the voice that has, in turn, acknowledged other voices. In his reading of Octavio Paz's many—tiered prose poem, Nissen has been inspired to find still other images.

Paz's voice, ineffaceable, nonetheless gives way to the flow of other narratives that, fittingly, have no beginnings and no endings. By adopting the traditional pre-Hispanic codex format—the screenfold book—Nissen allows his method of free association to flourish. Free, but not unformed: he has held to a scheme, as did the ancients, and in so doing, has been able to speak of the symbolic obsidian butterfly in various contexts. The poem that hums beneath the pages of this codex is itself a compendium of histories, images, myths.

Paz invokes the mythology of obsidian, with its connotations of soul, mirror, sacrificial knife, and its rumored origins as lightning fallen from the sky, in order to tell still other things. It is an historical poem in that it speaks of a fallen goddess, ravished by history through the Spanish conquest. It is transhistorical in that it speaks in the voice of incantation, toughing upon the eternally renewed grand themes that can only be conveyed in the language of Orpheus that speaks to the eye and ear directly.

It speaks the language of metaphor—a language whose very soul is rooted in ideograms and hieroglyphics that must be perennially de-coded. Nissen is true to the spirit of the poem. His symbols draw upon the timeless prototypes of the pre-Hispanic codices, but they are multivalent. He has not forgotten that in those times, it was often the wind that wrote and painted. His conjunctions of visual and poetic imagery always retain a mystery, for there were many mysteries in the ancient cults.

Paz' lament, both temporal and atemporal, is the soul of Nissen's codex. The body is in his images that speak, in the artless way of the pre-Hispanics, of six different aspects of community life in readable sequences: Calendar, Taxonomy, Topography, Mathematics, Orations and Inventories. These six divisions are based on various codices in which the Indians recorded their concept of their world.

In Nissen's codex, the reigning. It commences with the calendar, in which he plays upon the motif of the genesis and formation of insect larvae; moves on to the taxonomic play on classification. Here, the butterfly is instigator of several associations. Nissen weaves in electronic motifs to bring both the sound element the crackling of insects breaking out of their chrysalises, or the fast play of sparks as obsidian is struck and the contemporary association available in all ancient motifs.

In the third section, topography, he introduces a newspaper clipping in which the name of the village Papalotl, the original shrine of the goddess, is mentioned, and a map. Again, the contemporary is diffused in the ancient, with the imagery compounded, as it is in all subsequent sections leading up to the final image frankly stated in contemporary terms: a butterfly composed of steel nuts and bolts.

Throughout Nissen's codex, there are repeated motifs, metamorphosed, as is the butterfly, to suit the context. There are tools, larvae, wings, masks, symbols of mitosis, hieroglyphs and hints of pre-Hispanic forms such as the short-hand version of stones in old manuscripts, or the representation of feather rugs. These in turn suggest certain modern abstractions. In the accounting section, for instance, there are allusions to the vocabulary of the early 20th century abstractionists, whose symbols were based on metaphors and whose "razed alphabet" is here commemorated.

If Nissen introduces common objects, such as the drawing pin, screws, washers, and electronic circuits, it is to rhyme them with images drawn from the past, and to bring them together into a grand continuum. Just as Paz' goddess is at one with her mirror, so the reflections in this compendium of images are at one with time—those times and these. The astonishing 17th century philosopher Vico believed that men sang before they spoke, and spoke poetry before prose.

He understood that in their metaphorical language, "impossible universals", as he called them, shone forth. They were images compounded of seemingly incompatible elements that yet bespoke the world. The artist, the poet, brings together objects and ideas in a single concrete image that can be read by those who know the language.

Nissen has paced his codex in such a way that his basic vocabulary enlightens the whole. The images central to Paz' poem—whirlwinds, seeds, fire, leaves, animals, insects, stones— provide Nissen with the materials for his impossible universals. In his suite of prints accompanying the poem, the butterfly emerges with the eyes of an Aztec god, wings marked with the electric circuitry suggesting original fire, and larvae that are like atoms.

Yet the whole in its stonelike symmetry, is an allusion to the true Aztec prototypes in paintings and stone. In seeing universals in the shapes of the objects that lie about his studio, Nissen is taking his turn as mythologist and retriever, and, including the record with the music of Paz's voice illuminating his language, and the music imagined by Carles Santos of those times with their Godly insect sound, he has rounded and surrounded his subjects in timelessness.

To which, looking at Nissen's work, must be added another layer of history: the New World—which made knickknacks of bronze, but never had a Bronze Age—before the arrival of the Old. Nissen, coming out of post-imperial England, found in Mexico, as so many Europeans before him, vivacity—a vivacity that extends even into its obsession with death—and a unity, still extant in the hinterlands, of art and life. Their elaborations are tracks towards Nissen's work:. The Maya glyphs are important here not for their individual meanings decipherment but for their system of construction.

Marshall McLuhan, 1964

Charles Olson, in a letter from the Yucatan, writes:. What continues to hold me, is, the tremendous levy on all objects as they present themselves to human sense, in this glyph-world. And the weights of same, each to the other, is, immaculate as well as, full. Elsewhere, complaining of the archeologists Morley and Thompson's romantic image of the Maya as purely intellectual skywatchers, Olson makes the interesting observation that, for the Maya, time was " mass and weight" —. The Mayaologist Linda Schele notes—to take one exam-. A pictographic vulture with a crown was one of the many ways of writing ahau , which meant both "lord" and one of the day-names of the Maya calendar.

Nissen, then, constructs his sculptures as glyphs. It is a kind of "text" unknown outside the New World, but which has its parallels in the geometric patterns of Amazonian bas-. Nissen has continued, in traditional screen-fold book form, the pictographic experiments on canvas of Klee, Tobey, Gottlieb, and Torres-Garcia. Clavijero's Historia Antigua de Mexico , published in III What Nissen makes are altars, idols, temples, ruins, machines, ships, fountains ….

Presentation of the book Voluptuario at Rizzoli, New York. The richness of Brian Nissen's images and Carlos Fuentes astonishing text inspire ideas and sensations more given to feeling than verbalizing. However I will try to articulate some thoughts that delight has teased out of me. To confront desire is easier than to talk about desire - which explains our need to substitute the object of our desire by evoking another reality, absent and unnamable.

Desire, together with the impossibility of talking about it, stimulates a wealth of invention. To name the unnamable we have to resort to calling the same object by other names, and so that the unmentionable becomes evermentionable: the object is not just itself or its name, but rather all that it alludes to, all the names it evokes.

This play of complex reconstruction has held a fascination for western culture in particular moments of its history, and especially defined the path of the art of certain countries. As Carlos Fuentes says: " This is certainly the strongest and perhaps the most positive tradition of the Indo-Iberian world: It suffuses popular art, painting and writing with an urgency that it would not have if the desire could be materially accomplished.

However, in spite of this fateful mask, the game of substituting the name of the object of desire has engendered expressions rich in ambiguity, and thanks to their free and vibrant character, these substitutions are impregnated with great doses of pleasure; Joyful, playful, spasms of pleasure. In Mexico, the "albur" consists of a double-edged, two-faced play on words. This play-pun is one of the popular forms of expression that most clearly exemplifies the urge to reconstruct - in its absence - the name of the object of desire.

Not necessarily eternal, but extending indefinitely over time, a mode wi l l operate in historical genres that may change, be replaced, disappear, without the mode i t s e l f ever disappearing since i t is an aspect of our use of language. Thus a literary work can involve a mode or modes and be a member of a genre or genres , even while the two domains are distinct. Within a given work, the relation of genre to mode involves not a one-to-one correspondence but rather a habitation, to a certain degree, of a genre by a modes or modes; the relation involves the establishment of a hierarchy of modes whose arrangement characterizes the particular genre of the work.

Not a l l theories of genre have honoured the traditional generic triad of drama-epic-lyric. Some have conceived of another genre: the didactic. This new category takes the essay into account as an - 11 -honourable member of the literary canon. These "genres," I would argue, are surely modes, in the meaning of the term that we have developed. Again, Frye has posited, in a similar vein, four basic "genres"—the old triad of epos, drama and ly r i c plus something that he calls "prose": the latter can comprehend both an "intellectual" orientation covering the didactic forms and a Q fictional one.

I submit, then, that the didactic "genre" discussed by these cr i t i c s should be renamed a mode and added to the other three modes, also re-established according to their traditional meaning. Such a grouping of modes w i l l account better for the "manner of telling" in the different forms of literature. I would further suggest that an encyclopaedic mode must also be added to this group. What does such a mode involve? Like the others, i t must be a manner of tel l i n g in a text; i t i s , however, a manner which brings together and comprehends a l l of the others.

In Aristotle we saw the modes operating individually to the end of imitation of an object. What, as distinct from this mimesis, does a didactic mode involve? This takes over any or a l l of the basic mimetic modes, not to the end of mimesis but to the rhetorical end of persuasion, perhaps, the teaching of a moral order or doctrine. A didactic mode, like the others, is present to a varying extent in different genres. Now, an encyclopaedic mode functions rather like the didactic in - 12 -that i t , too, takes over other modes and adapts them to new ends. Unlike the didactic, however, its gesture of appropriation is by definition a comprehensive one: i t comprehends and transcends mimesis-oriented modes telling and presenting, or both and a didactic mode teaching or persuading by telling and presenting.

An encyclopaedic mode swallows up the pleasure versus instruction debate: the forms in which i t operates offer a synthesis of the two sides. Q Bakhtin's label of "serio-comical" is appropriate to such forms. Further, the end of the encyclopaedic differs from that of the didactic: its end is imitation, certainly, but an imitation of what has already been said in books; i t takes over epic, l y r i c , dramatic and didactic modes in one sweeping gesture, in the interests of imitating these modes for their own sake and not for the sake of any reality imitated or doctrine upheld.

An encyclopaedic mode, then, comprehends other modes in order to imitate them. The fictional encyclopaedia imitates the literary kinds in which these modes have been embodied over history; i t includes and plays with specific styles, works, books. Such mimicry may aim at pleasure; i t may be c r i t i c a l as in parody ; or i t may be a blending of the two in a joyful critique or "serio-comedy.

Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man

The knowledge imparted by such texts, such "imitations of imitations," is of a refracted, "literary" sort. If i t can be argued - 13 -that mimesis i t s e l f mediates or shapes rea l i t y , then so much the more must encyclopaedism do so, as the latter disperses—or, on the contrary, concentrates—reality through the lenses of the other literary modes and kinds, of books. I have been arguing for the establishment of an encyclopaedic mode. Beyond this, I also submit that there exists a genre of fic t i o n a l encyclopaedias. Let us recall the relation of genre to mode: a genre is never in a one-to-one correspondence with a mode; just as a particular mode may operate in a number of different kinds being dominant in some, less dominant in others , so a kind may have functioning within i t more than one mode.

In tragedy, for example, where the mimetic dramatic mode is dominant, the representation of action wins out over narrative or l y r i c a l elements, didactic intent, or the encyclopaedic recasting of previous genres and styles. Now, fictio n a l encyclopaedias constitute a genre wherein the encyclopaedic mode is dominant and didactic and mimetic modes are subordinated and brought into the service of an over-all " i n t e l l e c t u a l "1 0 or "bookish" or perhaps parodic orientation.

Let us put these ideas in diagram form: - 14 -Mod e s comprehends both encyclopaedic mode comprehensive—a mode of modes—mimetic, but at a higher level or at a remove, i. Further discussion of the traits of these encyclopaedic kinds should determine how they qualify for the epithet "encyclopaedic"; a discussion of their traits may also add to an understanding of the genre of fictional encyclopaedias, inasmuch as the latter features these characteristics while comprehending and exceeding them.

Finnegans Wake, the Cantos and Paradis are examples of such a - 15 -gathering-up of essayistic, Menippean and epic t r a i t s — p l u s others as well. Moby-Dick and the Commedia, mentioned by Mendelson as examples of encyclopaedic narrative, also perform such a gathering and exceeding. The essay The essay can be both didactic and autobiographical in nature. Montaigne's essays, for example, demonstrate how frequent citations from other authors, and use of moral exempla from other books, cause an autobiographical intent to be cut across by a didactic realization.

Montaigne builds his essays as a fabric of citations of the Ancients and allusions to great men as chronicled in previous histories. The supposedly autobiographical thrust of the essays runs up against this didactic tendency to acknowledge intellectual debt to others and to write within the public domain. Very l i t t l e of the material on which his moral conclusions are based is actually personal; most is public knowledge, book knowledge. Pound's literary essays begin from the opposite direction: unlike Montaigne, Pound begins with a didactic intent, but this is cut across by a strong autobiographical presence.

His precepts in the ABC of Reading, for example, as much record a personal a r t i s t i c programme and set of discoveries as instruct upon on the writing and reading of poetry. A variation of this equivocation between the personal and the public, the autobiographical and the didactic, is the interplay, in the - 16 -essay, between fi c t i o n and non-fiction: i t is often d i f f i c u l t to decide which of these two characterizes the form. This interplay is allied with that occurring between the occulting and the unveiling of an ideological nature: ".

Beaujour has discussed a similar ambiguity in the autoportrait: the autoportraitist begins with a desire to paint himself—as, for example, do Rousseau and Montaigne. But in his desire to f i l l in a perceived void with his own person, the autoportraitist instead reproduces the public domain of "les betises, les fantaisies, les fantasmes. Ie code moral de son epoque ou de sa classe, les bienseances, les conventions psychologiques et 13 culturelles.

Perhaps the autoportrait, then, in this i n a b i l i t y to decide between the personal and the public, is simply another name for the essay. The essay potentially includes an encyclopaedic range of topics moral, p o l i t i c a l , s c i e n t i f i c , etc. We think, for example, of the variety of t i t l e s in the essays of Montaigne and Bacon. Each essay-topic is explored on i t s own terms, according to i t s own logic: there is no predetermined path to be - 17 -followed.

Like the autoportrait, the essay often follows a method of "bricolage" in which everything that comes to hand including segments of other texts is used in the exploration of the theme. The essay is both self-sufficient and tentative open to further "assaying" ; a collection of essays has no over-arching, predetermined order of it s own. Such order is usually decided after the components are complete; headings or larger thematic units may be inserted in order to group individual essays, which were not, however, originally written with an eye to such categories.

The writer of an essay is somewhat like the writer of an article within an encyclopaedia: the latter is concerned with discovering and following the internal logic of his topic, and not with the over-all order of the work that wi l l enclose i t. The essay qualifies for the epithet "encyclopaedic" in several of the traits already discussed.

F i r s t , i t has at its disposal an encyclopaedic range of possible topics. Although each individual essay wi l l tackle usually only one topic, one tiny segment of the entire circ l e of knowledge, the fact that the essay in general has the desire and the potential to work with any aspect of knowledge qualifies the form as being encyclopaedic in impulse and in over-all realization.

Second, the essay features an encyclopaedic mode; this mode, we r e c a l l , characterizes those works which gather into themselves and imitate different modes, forms, styles. In reading an essay we often have d i f f i c u l t y in deciding just what mode, form, style, i t is taking up. Essays often seem to be now one thing, now another: they may seem to be fictio n a l or non-fictional; they may, as noted above, be now didactic, - 18 -now autobiographical. Within this indecisiveness there are local problems: is this or that essay lyrical?

One author has given a l i s t of ten types of essay: l i t e r a r y , poetic, fantastic, discursive, interpretive, theoretical, literary c r i t i c a l , 1 5 expository, journalistic and chronicling a time or a l i f e. There are shades, here, of Polonius' types in drama; 1 6 only a truly protean, assimilative form could generate such a l i s t. In i t s assimilation of generic boundaries, then, the essay enacts, on the formal l e v e l , an assimilation of knowledge on the cultural level. Certain traits of the essay are to be found in the f i c t i o n a l encyclopaedia.

An awareness of these can enhance our understanding of the more comprehensive form. F i r s t , in both the essay and the f i c t i o n a l encyclopaedia there is a coexistence of an autobiographical element, or knowledge gained from personal—and perhaps unwritable—experience, with a public element, or knowledge mediated by lett e r s.

In the fictional encyclopaedia, autobiography cannot be effaced by the essential anonymity of the enterprise of compiling an encyclopaedia: fictions presuppose persons writing, and the fictional encyclopaedia differs i n this respect from other fictions only in i t s relatively greater emphasis on anonymity as opposed to autobiography. For example, Pound's Cantos as fictional encyclopaedia feature the pressure of the public domain of documents, histories, texts, upon the record of a l i f e.

XLVII A second essay trait imitated in the fictional encyclopaedia is the peculiar fragmented format of the essay-collection. We have noted that such compilations follow no over-all order that is not imposed on them externally; each essay follows i t s own logic. Similarly, the order of the fictional encyclopaedia is thematic and associative rather than narrative and linear; i t is weighted more toward a constellation of independent pieces than toward any teleological movement.

A work such as Moby-Dick, for example, features the interplay of one order with another; i t features the breaking-up of narrative by a whale thematic which is explored independently and in counterpoint to the narrative l i n e. The genre's traits w i l l be briefly summarized here. The Ancients placed the Menippean satire along with the Socratic dialogue in the special category of the "serio-comical. Presumably they were also distinct from comedy.

The serio-comical emphasizes what Bakhtin calls a "carnival attitude to the world": ". The Menippean satire exemplifies the serio-comical t r a i t s , above. It is often more comical than serious. It displays a high degree of fantasy, and at the same time is concerned with a philoso-phical search for, and testing of, the truth; in this search i t often ranges from earth to the heavens and down to the underworld.

The form brings together the highest mystical elements with the lowest human types of character in its characteristic fantastic journey after truth 20 or "ultimate questions. It exhibits the form's definitive s a t i r i c a l bent, ridiculing prevalent oratorical practices and social excesses. The sublime and base are indistinguishable in this strange genre.

A summary of the more formal traits of the Menippean satire would o 9 include the following: a heterogeneous nature the text is a - 21 -collection of smaller texts with no apparent over-all relation and a related tendency to fragmentation; a mixing of prose and verse, and of forms such as letters, songs, epigrams, oratory, symposia, etc. Further, the form demonstrates an autobiographical impulse the author may become a character within the body of the work that is in a paradoxical relation to the above anonymous impulse. Finally, i t presents a vision of the world in terms of a "single intellectual 23 pattern" — t h a t i s , i t is organized symbolically.

The Satyricon illustrates these traits save, perhaps, the element of autobiography. Its narrative is l i t e r a l l y fragmented: the reader jumps from one low-life scene to another. Its prose is abruptly interrupted by verse segments, oratorical speeches, etc. Its "single intellectual pattern" Is an eroticized quest-theme. Sterne's Tristram Shandy is similarly "Menippean" in its fragmented, digressive narrative, its mixing of the forms of main text and footnote the latter becoming so lengthy that i t is often confused with text , and its patterning according to an all-informing theme of birth and receiving of identity.

In the Menippean satire, the sublime exists alongside the grotesque; the single-minded philosophical quest is never far from the duplicities of irony—or the encyclopaedic multiplicities of parody. Indeed, parody is one of the chief drives in the form, the parodic gesture organizing i t s borrowing and mixing of forms, i t s relativizing of their difference.

The form's satire empties i t s characters, making - 22 -them less people than "mental attitudes. Further, i t s "magpie instinct" is indistinguishable from the operation of the parody: the gathering of references is simultaneously a parody of the learned activity of gathering references. Thus, Petronius, for example, operates a parody of past forms or works.

Petronius aims his pen at the Odyssey, and at the wrath of Poseidon against Odysseus, when he presents the wanderings of Encolpius and his quest to overcome a god-induced impotence. Within the Satyricon, this Odyssean parody is with d i f f i c u l t y distinguished from the practice of making references via the poet Eumolpus to 26 painters and to other poets, including Homer and V i r g i l. Rabelais, in another case, parodies medieval romance and its treatment of the exploits of the hero when he presents such exploits, blown up to grotesque proportions, at the hands of Gargantua and Pantagruel.

In Rabelais' work, as in Petronius', such parody coexists with a heterogeneous collection of forms—narration, dialogue, verse-intervals, riddles, l i s t s. How is the Menippean satire an encyclopaedic genre? F i r s t , i t is eager to take on any topic for discussion and usually r i d i c u l e. Like the essay, i t may potentially speak about anything; however, unlike the essay, this encyclopaedic range of topics Is usually kept within the boundaries of a narrative which, even i f fragmented, is s t i l l - 23 -operative.

The essay is encyclopaedic in its potential, while not so in its individual realizations. On the other hand, the Menippean satire does collect, like Frye's magpie, many unrelated pieces of knowledge; however, this activity of collecting is usually subordinated to the narrative by being kept in the form of references made by the characters, or by the narrator in the form of footnotes.

It is only when references threaten to overtake narrative, when the encyclopaedist's love for his topics threatens to overtake the narrator's desire to t e l l a story, that we begin to cross the tenuous boundary separating the Menippean satire from the ficti o n a l encyclopaedia. Just as the Menippean satire absorbs an encyclopaedic range of cultural topics or items of knowledge into its narrative a process threatening the narrative or master line with fragmentation , i t also gathers up a multitude of specifically literary forms and imitates them while parodying them.

Like the essay, the genre features the simultaneous functioning of encyclopaedism in both i t s literary and cultural manifestations. For example, Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel includes the arts of military strategy and of statesmanship, the types of children's games and methods of education; these are included in a narrative which also mimics the heroic chronicle or the romance, and which features a parodic imitation of the "x begat y, etc. The interpenetration of objects of knowledge and types of literature, of encyclopaedic inclusion and parodic imitation, is further evident, for example, in the l i s t s of the games to which - 24 -Gargantua is addicted before his educational reform: these l i s t s , besides collecting games, also recall the literary or epic tradition of extravagant list-making.

Like the essay, the Menippean satire submits this activity of inclusion and imitation to certain limitations: the essay, for didactic reasons, concentrates on a fragment only of the circle of knowledge, while the Menippean satire is f i r s t and foremost a narrative. Certain traits of the Menippean satire are important in the ficti o n a l encyclopaedia. In the essay, an autobiographical drive works against a didactic or public tendency; similarly, in the Menippean satire—and the encyclopaedia—autobiography is countered by anonymous composition.

In the menippea, one is never sure who is speaking or writing. This is somewhat the case in the Satyricon: Encolpius is so clearly visualized as a participant in the action that i t is easy to forget that his is also the narrating voice. Tristram Shandy features an even more extreme confusion of narrating subject and object of narration. These confusions provoke the question, "Who speaks? With such a problematic narrator, anyone or no-one may be writing the tale. And yet Tristram Shandy is at least formally autobiographical: the narrative, of the birth and coming to identity of a baby, is a self-narrative.

Further, in a work such as Ulysses which I would argue is a fictional encyclopaedia , an autobiographical narrative Stephen Dedalus' coming into self-knowledge encounters the anonymous pressure of many different voices, with the result that the narrative is as much Dublin's as Stephen's or Bloom's. Narrative in Sollers' Paradis, for example, is an endless digression, a kaleidoscopic sweep through countless fragments of the world's knowledge, through many forms of discourse. Oddly enough, this 28 formal "dissolution" or "rhizome"-llke multiplicity coexists with an emerging symbolic shape: evocations of an unattainable or unwriteable paradise form the symbolic or intellectual crux of Sollers' text as much as they do in Dante's Commedia.

The epic A distinction between the epic and the fic t i o n a l encyclopaedia needs especially to be made, as they are often confused with one another. Pound's long poem has particularly lent i t s e l f to this 29 confusion; i t has been called an epic and a menippea. This confusion is possible because the epic, like the menippea, is "encyclopaedic" in scope. The fictional encyclopaedia, however, may have elements of epic, but i t s t i l l has special concerns, arising from its relation to the encyclopaedia, which are not epic concerns.

What are the traits of epic? The classical epic is at the base of the genre; i t s major traits should offer us a guide. The distinction between oral and literary epic is essential to the classical epic: Homeric and Virgi l i a n epics are based on an oral and a written - 26 -tradition, respectively. The epic as a long narrative poem thus began as an oral performance drawing upon many past performances and upon the gradual building-up of formulas regularly-used word-groups and thematic groups. Oral telling under the pressure of performance i s facilitated by this use of fixed structures or themes, within which a good deal of variation is possible.

Oral epic thus does not simply memorize past performances: i t s formulae involve an interplay between repetition and innovation or variation; its composition proceeds via an 3 0 addition and expansion of themes or units of t e l l i n g. Authorship in the oral epic is not as clear-cut as i t is in the literary epic. A particular performance, by a particular singer, of a song or tale draws on past performances for the existence of the tale, i t s composition and many of its very lines and images; this dependence differs from the literary work's reference to, and incorporation of, its predecessors.

Oral epic is thus neither authored nor anonymous; i t is at once an individual and a cultural product. In this sense i t is very much like the encyclopaedia, as we w i l l see shortly. The classical epic, whether oral or written, has several traits which are relevant to the idea of a fictional encyclopaedia. Such epic is a verse narrative, usually of some length, whose action is taken to have some historical basis. The epic's elevated tone arises from i t s desire to have a direct or privileged i n s i g h t — v i a the Muse or, within the tale, via the oracle—into the truth of events and into divine nature and motives.

Competing with this desire to sing the historical and the eternal is a need to sing the magical, to digress into - 27 -marvellous or supernatural sights and events. The classical epic is thus built on the tension between truth and f i c t i o n , between i t s traditional calling as an imitation and i t s nature as a creation. In spite of i t s overwhelming desire to t e l l things as they were, to sing of wars and heroic achievements, Homeric and Virgilian epic sings equally of voyages —Odysseus' and Aeneas'—in which the historical and magical fuse.

The gods are constantly interceding in the action of classical epic. It is perhaps due to their persistent presence that time in epic narrative becomes quite complex: the narrative line is broken up or interrupted by flashbacks to events preceding the main action, and by premonitions of events consequent on this action.

Such narrative creates a global view of events, a perspective in which past, present and future are one, in which historical events are seen as a whole and 31 in their essential truth. This perspective taken by the epic poet simulates a divine one. Further, linked to a global perspective is the favoured use, in the epic, of the extended simile. Such a device, extending over some length, includes any diverse areas of knowledge or experience that might be helpful in evoking an idea.

A global temporal perspective is thus inseparable from an encyclopaedic inclusiveness. The classical epic hero needs to be mentioned b r i e f l y , as he often reappears transformed in the fictional encyclopaedia. The hero battles for honour and journeys in obedience to divine impulses; he pits his strength and valour against monsters and monstrous situations. He is viewed externally, via actions which have a real effect upon the 3 2 world.

His "larger-than-life" quality i s , nonetheless, countered by - 28 -his mortality and his frequently being in disfavour with the gods. Aeneas, as the paragon of classical heroism, must ultimately subordinate his desires to divine ones.


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To take account of medieval and later epics, we must characterize the genre more broadly. The epic has the quality of expansiveness, the 3 3 impulse to extend i t s own luminosity in ever widening c i r c l e s. Expansiveness and totalization mean inclusiveness: q tr the epic is a "poem including history," in Pound's definition; i t is a poem including past, present and future, indeed a l l time, in it s global temporal perspective. As Aristotle puts i t , in the epic:. For the extension of it s length epic poetry has a special advantage, of which i t makes large use.

This then is a gain to the Epic, tending to give i t grandeur, and also varietyof interest and room for episodes of diverse kinds. Beginning and end of an action, beginning and end of a time or of a l l time: this grandly comprehensive temporal scope enables the epic, according to Aristotle, to include variety or d i v e r s i t y — a movement found, in miniature, in the epic simile. The encyclopaedic nature of the epic form should be obvious: the - 29 -epic draws into i t s e l f everything known at the time of writing, including the art of warfare, names and nature of the heroes and the gods, domestic and social custom, and so on.

We have shown how this encyclopaedic inclusion of a whole culture is responsible for the essay-form's thematic or non-narrative organization; i t is also the force behind the Menippean satire's tendency to introduce lengthy digressions into the narrative l i n e. An encyclopaedic inclusion of a culture might also l i e behind the epic's episodic form: episodes form a loose chain, with each piece being interesting for i t s own sake.

The elements of a culture are evoked and repeated for their own intrinsic interest, not solely as steps in the service of a tale to be told. As previously mentioned, Frye sees a link between an encyclopaedic form implying a totalizing knowledge of a culture, and an episodic form complete in i t s e l f. The f i r s t , he says, is built out of the second. An episode in an epic is one of these units pressed into the service of an over-all narrative, yet s t i l l retaining something of its original, self-sufficient nature. The epic, while undoubtedly encyclopaedic In i t s impulse to transmit the totality of a culture, must nonetheless be clearly distinguished from the fictional encyclopaedia.

Even more than the Menippean satire, the epic channels its "magpie" tendencies in the service of an all-important tale to be told: 37 The Wrath of Achilles is my theme. Sing Heav'nly Muse. Paradise Lost Unlike the encyclopaedist, the epic singer or writer is not concerned 39 with fields of knowledge outside his range of experience.

Within this limitation, the epic totalizes and encloses a small, perfect cosmos; i t 40 treats a past absolutely sealed off from the flux of the present. The encyclopaedia, on the other hand, writes on the edge of contemporaneity, in a present always threatening to become the past. Tn this openness to the present, the form—whether fictional or no n - f i c t i o n a l — i s open to new areas of knowledge; i t does not enclose or encircle once and for a l l , so much as create a structure capable of supporting an indefinite number of inclusions.

Further, the encyclopaedia treats i t s material with none of the awe accorded to the epic object; i t s seriocomical or parodic tone brings a l l of i t s inclusions onto the same le v e l , where they may be subjected to playful manipulation. Nonetheless, i t is the case that definitions of epic already mentioned—that is is a "poem including history," that i t has the quality of "expansiveness, the impulse to extend its own luminosity in ever widening c i r c l e s " — a r e relevant to the idea of a fictional encyclopaedia.

The epic's length is another relevant t r a i t : the work must be roomy or long enough to comprehend a totalizing vision of a culture and to include a global perspective on time. The past, present and future of an action, and more importantly the beginning and end of - 31 -history i t s e l f , are brought within its bounds. Correspondingly, the fictional encyclopaedia, as i t rewrites the sacred scriptures and reenacts sacred r i t u a l , is particularly concerned with the Creation, the Fall and the possibility of an often erotic Redemption.


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  4. The epic's hesitation between telling history and making beautiful fictions is very much a trait of the fictional encyclopaedia. A work such as Dante's Commedia which, in the sense that i t includes topical issues, is more encyclopaedic than epic is concerned with history but is not content merely to report i t.

    It must place events within a larger fictional structure, place historical figure next to angel, place Italy next to the cosmos and God's scheme of things. In this sense i t imitates the encyclopaedia i t s e l f which, while professing to be working objectively with the real, shapes and takes liberties with knowledge in a manner reminiscent of f i c t i o n.

    The epic hero finds his double or his extension in the fict i o n a l encyclopaedia. We recall that in the epic scheme of things, in an order bounded by the wi l l of the gods or by God's foreknowledge , the hero is ultimately limited in his capabilities and recognizes his own mortality. This is the case even though the hero is larger in stature than any other figure. Now, the epic hero takes two different forms in the fictional encyclopaedia, depending on whether the work Is ironic or not. In both cases the hero's nature is bound up in the pursuit of knowledge—a pursuit which was not foregrounded in the.

    In works such as Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, the epic hero faces his ironic double. Bloom and HCE are based on - 32 -the larger-than-life heroes, Ulysses and Adam; they move through the respective works in a grandiose manner, having adventures and mishaps; their actions are commented upon from the perspective of myth and history. And yet both figures are voyeurs and tricksters.

    What would be known in these works, a set of truths at once erotic, nostalgic and mystical, is balanced by this ironic perspective and hence is rendered somewhat ambiguous. In less ironic works such as Faust and Moby-Dick, the epic hero faces his extension into an untenably extreme form. Faust, obviously caught up in the pursuit of knowledge, overshoots the epic mark, transgresses the boundaries traditionally limiting the epic hero's capacities. Faust would go beyond God's order and accede directly to the truth of things.

    Faust, like HCE, wants to know too much, but his Fall is not ironized; he loses far more than his reputation. Like Aeneas, Faust towers over his contemporaries; unlike the prudent epic hero, however, he does not ultimately submit his w i l l to a divine one. Similarly, Ahab in Moby-Dick is modelled on the epic voyager after knowledge; however, in his desire to see into the heart of evil in the form of the white whale, he transgresses like Faust the boundaries of cosmic order and ultimately f a l l s from grace. Thus the fict i o n a l encyclopaedia repeats and transforms the epic hero differently depending on whether i t is a modern ironic work or not.

    Oral epic is more or less anonymous: i t may be performed and transformed by a particular bard, but i t is actually authored by a whole community of singers who have contributed versions of tales to a common pool of formulae, themes and ideas. In the epic, as in the Menippean satire and the essay, anonymous composition the text as a wide assimilation of cultural categories is in tension with authored composition the text as a personal project. This tension within the epic genre is precisely the distinction between primary and secondary epic.

    Now, the fictional encyclopaedia often gives the impression of having anonymous authorship. A multitude of categories of knowledge are drawn into i t and enter into play; cliches, proverbs, direct transcriptions of signs, snatches of songs, weave through the text. A culture or community, not a particular person, seems to be authoring the work. So much information is included that one person, i t seems, could not possibly have transmitted i t. This effect is particularly marked, for Instance, in Finnegans Wake: this work, along with Pound's Cantos, requires a collective venture of annotation.

    Like oral epic, then, the fictional encyclopaedia has an anonymous aspect; however, like written epic and, of course, like a l l written works , the genre remains an authored one. Indeed, i t goes further in being quite conscious of its nature and limitations as writing. Images of writing, of the book, in examples of the form are an important indication of this l i t e r a r y , or even scriptural, self-consciousness. Finnegans Wake, for example, while often giving - 34 -the impression of being a compendium of popular, orally-transmitted knowledge, a chorus or, better, cacophony of voices from different cultures and times, nonetheless features specifically literary images: Anna Livia's letter and the exegete's activity in deciphering i t transmit a consciousness of the literary epistolary nature of the 43 enterprise of the book; further, the parody of literary conventions of marginal commentary and footnoting indicates a textual tradition to which the book, however much i t may aspire to a condition of o r a l i t y , necessarily belongs.

    Thus we cannot simply say that our genre takes over the oral qualities of epic; i t absorbs, rather, the conflict between oral song and written book that stands at the heart of the epic as genre. The encyclopaedia: Introduction and general discussion We have seen an encyclopaedic mode to be operating, to varying degrees, in several historical genres, and to be determining our perception of their "encyclopaedic" nature. These genres are the essay, the Menippean satire, and the epic.

    It is clear, however, that there exist certain texts that transcend these generic boundaries or include them a l l. Such texts contain aspects of the more limited genres, and yet seem to form a group on their own—the genre that we have - 35 -tentatively called "the ficti o n a l encyclopaedia. Our task wil l now be to establish the traits of the latter as i t provides a model for the fictional encyclopaedia. In doing so, we must realize that the encyclopaedia Is only a metaphor for its fictional counterpart; we must not posit direct relations between the two levels. Characteristics of the non-fictional work are not taken over directly by fictional texts such as Moby-Dick and Finnegans Wake: instead, they are translated or transposed by a fictional universe and intent.

    Inventory of the Obscure: The Gathered Adventures of Finnegan Woodsworth Inventory of the Obscure: The Gathered Adventures of Finnegan Woodsworth
    Inventory of the Obscure: The Gathered Adventures of Finnegan Woodsworth Inventory of the Obscure: The Gathered Adventures of Finnegan Woodsworth
    Inventory of the Obscure: The Gathered Adventures of Finnegan Woodsworth Inventory of the Obscure: The Gathered Adventures of Finnegan Woodsworth
    Inventory of the Obscure: The Gathered Adventures of Finnegan Woodsworth Inventory of the Obscure: The Gathered Adventures of Finnegan Woodsworth
    Inventory of the Obscure: The Gathered Adventures of Finnegan Woodsworth Inventory of the Obscure: The Gathered Adventures of Finnegan Woodsworth

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