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Ruin, the collector, and ‘sad mortality’.

By Alan Wall.

EVERY STAMP COLLECTION IS a protest against the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Every act of archaeology laments the dispersion of what remains of us through time and space. Each book collector asserts the justice of ultimate cohesion in a world whose teleology and terminus is organizational and structural degradation. Every burial site refuses to relinquish entirely into time’s maw those treasures we have encountered in time. Shakespeare’s sonnets negotiate the paradox over and over: we revere those things whose loss we perceive approaching:

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long. 

And to protect itself from the charge of whimsicality and greed, collecting itemises and describes; it inventories and delineates; it compares and contrasts. This is not merely a stab against darkness and death, its catalogues assure us: it is science. Here might be a few of my favourite things, but they are windows into what Prospero called ‘the dark backward and abysm of time’. Insofar as they shine in the dark, it is so as to illuminate that darkness with bright constellations of knowledge.

And so first we hunt the narwhal or elephant, then we carve on the hacked-off dentition of its ivory the shape of the creature we have slaughtered. Now we will surely be able to see for ever the mammoth in the mammoth’s tusk; the ibex in the reindeer’s antler. In the caves of Altamira and Lascaux, neither the creature limned nor the ancient limner survive, but the images still do. These are traces time has not yet obliterated, like Shakespeare’s sonnets.

THE ENTROPIC PRINCIPLE INFORMS us that heat goes out of the system, any system. Unless Maxwell’s Demon has finally come to life, like Mr Punch jumping up after playing dead with the policeman, then we end up with a maximum state of disorder, a grey sea of randomized matter graded down to its lowest common denominator. There might be the odd molecular twitch, a dead memory stirring, an echo of livelier times, but otherwise this is the end, an end that threatens to go on and on; as eschatologies go, this looks like being a lengthy one.

In my end is my beginning: so Mary Queen of Scots said, heading for the scaffold and her own beheading. So was this featureless entropic soup the primeval gruel from whence we all first started out? Milton thought the universe was made out of chaos, not nothing. He agreed with Thomas Harriot on this: ex nihilo, nihil fit. Even God can’t make something out of nothing. Modern science might, however, be deciding otherwise. If the whole cosmos flipped into being out of a single quantum fluctuation (one potent theory) then everything effectively came out of nothing, though we might need to ponder the significance of the O at the heart of the word nothing: it would appear that there is nothing there except perhaps a world of infinite possibility, which might (on reflection) start to look like quite a lot. Not a vacancy then, more of an arithmetic womb.

In the Greek cosmology, chaos came first, a great commingling of all elements, a sea of indeterminacy that might bear some comparison with a singularity. All that was to come later was implicit here in chaos, though it had not yet found its form. And the first agency of order to emerge from such seething formlessness was Eros. Love finds form in chaos; already the theme of the collector struggling against time’s arrow and the tide of dissolution can be discerned in these early myths, for the man with the postcard collection is imposing form upon what would otherwise appear to be no more than a scattering of entropic communications (even though the butterfly collection adds its tiny quotient to the entropic process, with every act of minute assassination). In his tiny Wunderkammer, the collector is Maxwell’s Demon; he sorts the faster molecules from the slower ones; he reverses entropy in the delimited space of his collection. Chaos in any case can either be disorder or an order we have not yet perceived. We use the word gas because Van Helmont used the Dutch word for chaos to describe a phenomenon that seemed to him without any observable patterning. Brownian motion and the discoveries of thermodynamics between them established patterns unknown to Van Helmont, and we can now predict the behaviour of gases with considerable precision.

Edw. Schrödinger.

IN 1943, THE PHYSICIST Erwin Schrödinger delivered a series of lectures at Trinity College, Dublin. In these he argued that the metabolism of any organism feeds upon its environment in order to free itself as far as possible from consistent entropic decline. The entropic decline is expressed in the equation: S1 – S ≥ 0. This might be the most depressing thing the human species has ever said to itself. Entropy always maximises its life-destroying possibilities. Things go from bad to worse. We’re all doomed. Maximum entropy once achieved is the state of thermodynamical equilibrium. Entropy ends where life ends, at the point of absolute zero, minus 273 degrees centigrade. Short of that, things are still going on to some extent. Schrödinger argued that in battling away to minimise the entropy that condemns it to death, the organism always ingests negative entropy: it effectively creates order in an anti-entropic manoeuvre. A plant is continually borrowing order from the sunlight so as to stay alive and grow. The capture and retention of energy is the first principle of life.

So we have here a cosmic dialectic between order and disorder. These two mighty forces are in constant battle and negotiation. At the microcosmic level, the collector ventures continuously into the disordered city so as to rescue some fragments of order, like Aeneas bearing his father Anchises away from the burning ruins of Troy. In his essay ‘Unpacking My Library’ Walter Benjamin speaks of the life of the collector consisting of ‘a dialectical tension between the poles of disorder and order’. We could equally well describe this polarity as that between contingency and causality: every bookshop, every auction, is a field of contingency from which might emerge another proof of causality.

Thomas Frognall Dibdin.

‘Collectors are the physiognomists of the world of objects,’ says Benjamin. What the collector sets against chaos and dissolution is passion and knowledge: the craving to possess here, according to Benjamin, amounts to a redemption of the lost object into the coherence and focus of the new possessor’s loving and knowledgeable gaze. Such passion leads often enough to dissension and conflict. Theft is a frequent accusation; and not infrequently a fact. Thomas Frognall Dibdin published Bibliomania in 1809. Inspired by a poem, The Bibliomania, by John Ferriar, a medical man who worked with the insane, Dibdin’s book was primarily a study of Richard Heber. Dibdin himself, despite the title Reverend that prefixed his name, was a cheerfully unscrupulous acquirer of bibliographic treasures. He offered to help the clergy of Lincoln Cathedral bring their antiquated library up to date. He turned up with £300 worth of modern volumes. They then discovered that Dibdin had just sold one of the old volumes he had taken away for £1800. He ceased to be a welcome visitor; he became ex cathedratic. (Modernization can be a terrible thing: the Bodleian Library Catalogues show that it possessed a Shakespeare First Folio of 1623 until 1635, but the Catalogue of 1674 lists only the Third Folio of 1664. The early one had evidently been superseded, and had gone for ever.)

BUT DIBDIN WAS ANODYNE normality incarnate compared to his subject Richard Heber, who was busily compiling book catalogues by the age of eight. The catalogue, Benjamin points out, is the emblematic focus of order amidst the chaotic realm of the collector’s world. By the end of his life, Heber was a bibliomanic eremite, locked behind the doors of his house in Pimlico. On hearing news of his death Dibdin turned up to discover this scene: ‘I looked around me in amazement. I had never seen rooms, cupboards, passages, and corridors, so choked, so suffocated with books. Treble rows were here, double rows were there. Hundreds of slim quartos – several upon each other – were longitudinally placed over thin and stunted duodecimos, reaching from one extremity of a shelf to another. Up to the very ceiling the piles of volumes extended; while the floor was strewn with them, in loose and numerous heaps.’ In other words, the collection had replaced the world. The collector had built a microcosm, and now lived inside it, regarding the macrocosm as no more than background, or as the catchment area for reality proper: the collection. Baudelaire describes this eclipse of world by collection in the first stanza of ‘Le Voyage’, where the stamps seen in lamplight are so much more luminous than the daily realities encountered on the street.

The biggest purchaser of manuscripts from Heber’s collection was Sir Thomas Phillipps, whose life was dedicated to the acquisition and cataloguing of books and papers. He amassed an army of creditors, frequently bankrupting booksellers in the process, and had to flee abroad for some years. His wife and daughters, and even the governess, were employed as catalogue compilers and forced to live in grave discomfort: books always took precedence. His wife died young, addicted to drugs; anything to dull the pain of the life her husband inflicted on her, which was in effect a species of bibliomanic imprisonment. Then along came the Shakespeare biographer James Orchard Halliwell. He courted Phillipps, but he also courted his daughter Henrietta. Phillipps wanted money for his daughters, to enable him to buy more books, and Halliwell didn’t have any. Consent for the match was not forthcoming, so the young couple eloped, eliciting a venomous reaction from Henrietta’s father that lasted a lifetime. Halliwell, despite his undoubted Shakespeare scholarship, appears to have been a zealous book thief, and was very nearly prosecuted for stealing manuscripts from Trinity College, Cambridge. He also took a 1603 Hamlet quarto from Phillipps’s own library. This he mutilated in order to disguise it. A bibliomane he might have been, but hardly a bibliophile, since that word means lover of books. He often destroyed copies in order to enhance the value of the one remaining volume in his own possession.

Tradescant’s ‘Ark’ in Lambeth.

John Tradescant in the seventeenth century had built up a substantial collection, consisting of all sorts of objects, which together came to be named the Tradescant Ark. This remarkable man, who was responsible for introducing a great variety of trees into Britain, including the acacia, the horse chestnut, the larch, the plane and the mulberry, had an eye for anything of interest in the world at large, in which he travelled a great deal; he was, in Benjamin’s phrase, a physiognomist of objects. His collection, which his son, also John Tradescant, dubbed the Musaeum Tradescantianum, caught the attention of Elias Ashmole, a voracious antiquarian with an alchemical obsession. Ashmole seems to have convinced Tradescant and his wife Hester that he alone had the means to do their collection justice. He had a document made up which allowed him to acquire the Musaeum Tradescantianum for the peppercorn sum of one shilling. The Tradescants soon came to think better of this deed, and let it be understood that Ashmole had gained their agreement through several varieties of genteel chicanery. After John’s death, Ashmole pursued the matter with legal force, and had the case heard at Chancery. The Lord Chancellor happened to be Lord Clarendon, whom Ashmole knew, since he was now himself a Windsor Herald. He won. And so were assigned to him ‘the said books, coins, medals, stones, pictures, mechanics and antiquities’. Hester Tradescant subsequently drowned herself. And thus began the Ashmolean Museum, the first genuine museum in Europe. The Musaeum Tradescantianum formed the core of its first collection. Like so many museums its exquisite adornments and venerated items appear to have originated as loot, expropriated from the inattentive and the guileless.

THE COLLECTION EXISTS IN order to hold ruin at bay, so there is an acute poignancy to the ruin of any collection. Particle meets anti-particle; annihilation ensues. Alfred Russel Wallace spent years putting together his collection of animals and plants from the Amazon. The brig on to which they were loaded for return to England caught fire, and almost everything was destroyed. Wallace always was unfortunate; his best stroke of good fortune was to gain the affection and loyalty of Charles Darwin. But what went up in smoke that day in South America is nothing in comparison with the destruction that occurred in a matter of hours when the Library at Alexandria caught fire. Located in the cross winds of a political conflict, it was collateral damage as far as Caesar was concerned. As a result we have seven extant plays by Sophocles; but there were at least a hundred in the library. The others went up in flames, along with so much else. And Caesar continues on his breezy way. In 2003 the National Museum and Library in Baghdad were badly burned and looted. American soldiers stood around nearby, but their brief was not the protection of antiquities. Collateral damage once more, then. Manuscripts don’t burn, said the great Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov, but he was wrong, sadly.

Jos. Gandy.

One of the most astonishing meeting-points of antiquarian collector and temporal ruin is the relationship between John Soane and Joseph Gandy. Soane was a brilliant architect and Joseph Gandy was a troubled artist with a genius for painting buildings. Soane had an uncanny premonition that little of his own work would survive, and he was right. Most of his masterpieces have subsequently been demolished. Soane rebuilt the Stock Exchange, which at the time consisted of a rotunda within the Bank of England. He then commissioned Gandy to paint it for him. Gandy did so, and immediately afterwards painted the same structure, this time in ruins. A little over a century later the building itself was in ruins, demolished to make way for a more convenient space in which money might reproduce itself. In the museum which bears his name at 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London, Soane’s extraordinary collection of antiquities remains like an acknowledgment of universal vastation. ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins,’ says the central voice of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. The words could well be inscribed over the doorway of the Soane Museum. Fitted into the wall on the outside of the architect’s house are some corbels, retrieved from the burnt-out Palace of Westminster.

At the end of his life W. B. Yeats stared back across the collection of images and emblems he had incorporated as symbols in his writing. He had frequently recommended rage against the levelling wind (a good image for entropy) but at last he acknowledged its inescapability:

I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

SHAKESPEARE HAD BEEN THERE before him, as Yeats well knew. Time in Macbeth becomes entropic, that ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ which continues for ever in meaningless succession, shaping the syllables of a tale told by an idiot, the randomized prattle of a nature that has come to nothing. All falls into ‘the sere, the yellow leaf’. And the sonnets address the war between order and chaos, between form and dissolution, over and over:

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’ersways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

Sad mortality is the overwhelming force; it is the Second Law of Thermodynamics personified, the man in the black silk hood, ‘this fell sergeant, Death’. The legal metaphors in the last two lines, involving the consideration of a case, and the action brought by a plaintiff, show what all our desperate legalities are finally doomed to endure. The magical circle of the collector’s vivid attention is temporary at best. Ruin can never be legislated away.

Walter Benjamin.

Perhaps one of the most affecting images of the collector staring into the face of dissolution is that of Walter Benjamin in the last days of his life at Portbou. It has long been reported that he had with him a suitcase, which contained a document ‘more valuable than his life’. It has been speculated that this document may have been the most complete draft of his immense Arcades Project, which was never published in his lifetime, but which may have contained a whole section on the collector and his battle against entropy. Walter Benjamin committed suicide in that small town, rather than risk falling into the hands of the Nazis. The suitcase has never been found. It could turn up, though; there is still time. We have not yet reached absolute zero. Benjamin’s battered case could resurface on history’s scummy tide one day. A manuscript concerning Ben Jonson’s hike to Scotland has recently been discovered, having disappeared for the better part of four centuries. There are still paintings by Rembrandt or Leonardo waiting for the door to open, the light to come through the window at last. Soane’s Bank Stock Office was reconstructed within one of the Bank of England’s halls in 1989. Joseph Gandy’s pen and watercolour drawing of 1798 was invaluable as a guide; the visionary of Soane’s ruins had become the means of his restoration. These fragments I have shored against my ruins. To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.

Alan Wall was born in Bradford and studied English at Oxford. He has published six novels and a book of short stories, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester. His new book of short stories, Burning Bibles, is published by the Edgar Allan Press in May. He lives in North Wales.  

Fresh reflections on older texts.

Odd Volumes: The Bibliomania‘ by John Ferriar, M.D. Some of the anecdotal material here was taken from John Michell’s essay ‘Bibliomaniacs’ in his Eccentric Lives and Peculiar Notions, and from Philipp Blom’s To Have and to Hold: An Intimate History of Collectors and Collecting. Dibdin’s book The Bibliomania, Or Book-Madness, is also available online in a well-annotated edition published by Tiger of the Stripe.

An exposition of Benjamin’s ‘archive’ – sponsored by the Akademie der Künste in Berlin and the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme – is in Paris through 5 February 2012. The MAHJ exhibition circular, with a timeline and an interesting sidebar on Benjamin’s ‘intellectual universe’, may be downloaded here.



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