NO BAUDELAIRES IN BABYLON:
Tom Bradley's Comments at the Paris Sorbonne
International Conference on Electronic Literature
March 15, 2002
"I have not seen the walls at Babylon...
nor have I heard the account of any eye-witness."
We are gathered here today in defiance of the ossified and incestuous cabals who've controlled literature ever since Pisistratus the Athenian tyrant caused the Iliad and the Odyssey to be "put into order."
You remember Pisistratus. He's the same enterprising soul who grabbed a husky country girl, cleaned her up, dressed her in full body armor, and went riding his chariot into town with her at the reins, telling everybody that she was his personal chum, the goddess Athena. Today he'd be at the helm of a major communications corporation.
Literature, to people like this, is a means to a usually nefarious end. Pisistratus decided that it would be useful to regulate the public performances of poetry, maybe do a little manipulation of the poems themselves, in order to achieve certain propagandistic effects that would shore up his authority and enhance the credibility of his cronies. So he descended upon the humble Homeridae, a clan of jobbing reciters said to be sprung agnatically from the loins of the blind bard himself. These "Sons of Homer" had long pursued their hereditary trade of doling out memorized bits to live audiences, meanwhile preserving the hodge-podge of written transcripts on their island.
Drawing on slave-generated proceeds from the local silver mine, our sacrilegious tyrant caused the scrolls, which contained all the wisdom and knowledge under the sun, to be corrected and collated. No doubt, from that point forward (at least till Pisistratus' son and successor was run out of Athens) there were Iliad and Odyssey police standing ready at the festivals to drag off any performer who dared deviate from the municipal text. So much for oral improvised verse. No more slams on the old Acropolis.
Fast-forward 400 years, and the Official and Definitive Pisistratid Homer, Deluxe Critical Edition, is chief among the volumes being copied and stockpiled at Pergamum on the Anatolian mainland. The local king, Eumenes, has a hankering to adorn his reign with a proper library. But the powers that be in Egypt get wind of this project, which threatens to give their own Alexandrian stacks a run for their money. So, what do they do? They slap an embargo on papyrus. They pinch off the western world's supply of non-monumental writing material. And you thought Bill Gates was a pharaonic little prick. Egypt had become the Microsoft of antiquity: whoever craves knowledge can come crawling to us, and we'll see what can be arranged.
And what is the best weapon against Bill Gates, besides urging clever youngsters to hack in and crash his system? (Julius Caesar will do just that to Egypt soon enough, burning big parts of the Alexandrian library during Cleopatra's watch; and the ancestors of Bin Laden will come along seven and a half centuries after that, and finish the job neatly.) While we wait for the hackers to work their magic, what recourse do we have? Ask Linux and Apple, and ask King Eumenes of Pergamum: innovation.
Did the king let a little problem like the sudden unavailability of a data storage medium stifle his big plans? Hell no. He put his clever Greeks to work on the problem. Since their local riverbanks, unlike those of the Nile, had no suitable weeds, they turned their attention to a completely different category of substance that happened to be lying around in abundance: the inedible leftovers from banquets and sacrifices. They scraped the hair and fat off goat- and cow- and sheepskins, and soaked the split hides in a special brew whose active ingredient was dog shit. A few more or less elaborate physical manipulations were performed, and voila. The result was called "parchment," a new word derived from the name of the city. It was slightly less dear than the vegetable product for which it was the sole competitor, but still pricey enough: one drachma per page--a week's wage for many.
This same basic recipe for parchment will accompany the Pharisees in about 250 years when, Herod's temple destroyed, they retire to "Babylonia," carrying in their heads the Second Sinai, which Yahweh whispered esoterically into Moses' ear just after slipping him the old Decalogue. The scribes will commit to parchment scrolls these Traditions of the Elders (so underappreciated by a certain young rabbi from Galilee). However, in the tanning process, the famed fruit of the Mesopotamian date palm--a commodity sweet enough to be worth its weight in medium-grade copper--will be substituted for dog shit. (Something to do with kosher legislation, perhaps.)
And, for the next half-millennium, until the Arabs take a Chinese POW in future Taliban territory who will finally teach us to make actual paper, Western and Near-Eastern Literature will continue to be a tale of two competing media--at least from the book-hawker's point of view.
In an age like ours, when editors and agents have abolished the slush pile to give themselves time to "author" best-selling memoirs, it may be hard for apparently growing numbers of people to believe, but the book-hawker's point of view is not the only one worthy of consideration here. For example, it might occur to some to wonder where the writer himself figured in all this scheming and market manipulation and tugs-o'-war between venture capitalists and potentates.
The writer? He's tucked snugly under the wing of aristocratic patronage, and there he will remain until the storming of the big prison that used to be on the other side of this town. I know the armpit of a marquis sounds like an awfully stifling place to be tucked for such a long time, but that's just because we are products of the degenerate modern age. As Kenneth Rexroth reminds us in his introduction to the second issue of the Evergreen Review, "...only our industrial and commercial civilization has produced an [artistic and intellectual] elite which has consistently rejected all the reigning values of society."
Up until that jarring discontinuity in world history which saw the shutting down of this university (I mean the time before 1968), artists and writers served as "moral vates to the ruling classes." Rexroth says we were "ultimately the creators of all primary values" in the pre-modern world. (I suppose that having to drink and fornicate on demand with blue-bloods was a small enough price to pay for such an honor.) He sums it up in a very memorable phrase: "There were no Baudelaires in Babylon."
The best poets, in other words, were not driven underground in the long, long ago. Even Catullus, hero of Bukowski (our very own American Baudelaire), was cuddly with generals and senators. His father was tight with Julius Caesar and had him over to dinner often. Of infinitely greater importance, Catullus was in a position to be invited to the soirees and salons of the fabulously wealthy Atticus, who had several cohorts of his slaves trained to copy and bind manuscripts, both vegetable and animal. This Atticus took it upon himself to promote and circulate the work of the greatest writers of his day--or at least those we are aware of. Christ knows how many he buried, either deliberately or through neglect. A god-maker generates his own self-fulfilling prophecies. The ship of state in the pre-modern world may have derived its keel and ballast from the minds of poets, as Rexroth suggests, but I refuse to believe that the moneyed types, according to whose whim select writers were allowed to die leaving behind some trace of their existence on earth, were any better than their modern counterparts.
How do we know there were no Baudelaires in Babylon? It's not as if there was a net where they could post their stuff. They could have been squashed under giant piles of approved texts, as we Baudelaires tend to be in today's world of print. We are aware of Catullus only because he happened to please a mover of merchandise who was squeamish enough to deal in books instead of job lots of angelic British catamites, who controlled access to large amounts of papyrus and/or parchment and had the connections to import oak gall ink of good enough quality to contain the iron sulfate that would withstand the wet rags of palimpsest makers, who wielded the knout over stables of Greekling copyist slaves in their harried hundreds, and thereby supplied the pigeonholes of bookstalls throughout the Latin-speaking world. Atticus, by virtue of being the sort of half-hatched personality who devotes his brief stay on this planet to manipulating matter instead of ideas, allowed Catullus' cerebrations to see the light of day.
And that is why the canny poet hobnobbed with the literary dictator of Republican Rome as well as the political dictator, and addressed poems to them. And if you'd been born, or somehow had managed to weasel your way, into the correspondingly celestial stratum of our society, wouldn't you be doing the same thing right now, instead of casting your pearls gratis before the stingy swine of the internet? That's a loaded question, of course, as circumstances have been drastically altered since Roman times.
Between then and now, the man known as the Great Cham of Literature came into existence, in a very big way. A dozen years before Jean Paul Marat climbed out of this town's glamorous sewers, Samuel Johnson had already caused the decidedly unglamorous gutters of London's Grub Street to re-echo with his rallying cry: "That man is a blockhead who ever wrote except for money!" Having done with patronage for good, the great lexicologist placed us at the beck and call of the book buying public at large. And the goodness of that news is unadulterated only if you insist on looking at it, once again, strictly from the book-hawker's point-of-view. Businessmen have taken the place of dukes and duchesses. Now, thanks to Dr. Johnson, if we want our stuff to see print, we have to kiss Si Newhouse's parvenu ass, instead of Atticus' equestrian buttocks.
Still, the question remains on the table: would you versify for the postmodern Atticus? How about for the Caesar of the New World Order? (Forget, for the moment, the truest words ever spoken: "All money is dirty money.") If they gave you a high six-figure advance against royalties on one of your novels, could they purchase your soul to the extent that you'd write Senator Bob Dole's acceptance speech at the 1996 Republican National Convention? That was the $800,000 question for Mark Helprin, America's closest moral (but not artistic) equivalent to Catullus. Guggenheim fellow, National Book Award nominee, recipient of the Penn-Faulkner Award and the Prix de Rome, Wall Street Journal contributing editor, senior fellow of a reactionary think tank in Indiana, Mark Helprin is responsible for such narcissistic abortions as Refiner's Fire, Winter's Tale, and A Soldier of the Great War. He answered the eight hundred-grand question in the affirmative. Again, Rexroth's words come to mind: "No literature of the past 200 years is of the slightest importance unless it is disaffiliated."
Now, I don't need to tell you e-literati that being disaffiliated is not all Cadillac convertibles and brimming bushels of hothouse sinsemilla buds. Disaffiliation has a tendency to be, shall we say, less than remunerative. And the alternative has been made to appear so delicious (not the least by Helprin himself, who takes care during his interviews to mention that his office has genuine rosewood paneling). Since Dr. Johnson's time, when they usurped the nobility's power to corrupt us, the merchandisers have had plenty of opportunity to hone their seductive wiles. They have gotten very good at breathing their perfume deep into our nostrils, and sloshing their cup of abominations ever so close to our sorely tempted lips.
As for our well-affiliated Guggenheimer, our Wall Street Journal man, we have to remember that the hawkers and mongers first draped their purple tissues and scarlet textures over that poor zhlubb way back in the pre-web era, when their charm was even more potent. These days, if a writer is going to sell out, he has to be more of an asshole than Mark Helprin, whose early stories, unlike our glorious, universally available electronic texts, would have languished as typescripts in his underpants drawer had he not rolled over and said "Please," and "Thank you, Sir." We net authors have no excuse but greed to act that way.
Thanks to e-lit, our own universe-upending revolution, the center of literary power has shifted, suddenly, and for only the second time in history. To the extent that it's humanly possible, moneyed types have become irrelevant. As Barney Rosset, editor of the aforementioned Evergreen Review, has said, "For once the technology is in the hands of the relatively impoverished." The web has made it possible for a writer to develop a more or less gigantic international following without the patriarchal blessing of rich bastards. With our submissions pasted into the bodies of email messages and our virtual galley proofs, we are not forced to make the Manichean compromise of getting into bed with manipulators of matter and movers of merchandise.
Hence the existence, no doubt eventually fatal, of a powerful cadre of internet haters. To play Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates, to hold the keys to the only form of immortality available in a godless age: is there any prouder accomplishment for an untalented person of the merchant caste? And do you think they are going to sit back and let those keys be wrested from their pinching little claws by a bunch of literary lumpen-proles like us, who don't even use paper when we move our mental bowels? They're closing ranks now. Have you noticed how many books coming out of New York these days are dedicated not to the long-suffering spouses and children of the authors, but to their agents and editors? These dedications tend to be more succinct but no less nauseating than Colley Cibber's 600-word grovel to the inbred aristocrat who urged him to do Shakespeare a big posthumous favor and rewrite Richard III.
Now I've gone and done it. I've resurrected the proverbial Lousy Writer himself, Dullness personified, the one contemporary of Dr. Johnson who doesn't seem to have heard the line about blockheads, George II's lapdog and pet poet laureate, the clown prince of ludicrous hacks. I have invoked the name of Colley Cibber--and in the same breath as a certain contributing editor for the Wall Street Journal. I wish I could say it was by random free association.
It's way too late for the former, but maybe we should give the latter a break. Perhaps we ought to refrain from eviscerating Mark Helprin and draping his entrails like a feather boa around his neck for all the ages to snicker at, as Alexander Pope did to Cibber. Restraint on our part might be called for--and not just because the poor man is reputed to have sustained a small amount of brain damage while patrolling the Lebanese border in a combat unit of the Israeli armed forces.
Why single him out for disdain and mockery? After all, even Shakespeare knew what side his crumpet was buttered on. And Aristophanes may have enjoyed drinking with Socrates, but it cost money to mount comedies, and the playwright did not hesitate to parade the philosopher's quirks in order to tickle the funny bones, and rouse the ire, of the latter's wealthy enemies, with fatal results.
On the other hand, for every Shakespeare, how many Kit Marlowes? And while Virgil obediently churns out occasional verse to help the self-proclaimed First Citizen kick-start one of the most oppressive regimes in history, I can't help thinking of Ovid languishing all alone on the Black Sea, dodging those arrows which the barbarous Skythians shot at random over the town walls to amuse themselves.
And when Chuck-Buk fondly hallucinates our well-connected young Catullus at the race track, I always remember another poet from the same city, several generations later, when Rome was no longer the valiant and amiable new ally depicted in the first book of Maccabees, but had become the imperialistic oppressor which slithers off the pages of a certain well-known sleeper of that particular publishing season: "...the Harlot, arrayed in purple and scarlet color, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication... drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus."
Atticus was no longer around, but his moral descendants were, only more so. The Harlot's reach had extended to the point that Martial, the first world-wide best-selling author, could brag that his books of epigrams were being hawked to Rome-worshiping provincial middlebrows everywhere, from the tin mines of Britain to Zeugma on the Euphrates (no doubt in parchment as well as papyrus editions). Such was the level of acclaim this poet enjoyed even while serving as moral vates to the vicious Emperor Domitian, the Hitler of classical antiquity--whom Martial's ditties often enough slavishly identify with the god Jupiter.
For some odd reason, Senator Bob Dole's gag writer just sprang back into my mind. (He won't stay down for the count.) Mark Helprin may have sold as many books, but in the talent department he's less of a Baudelaire than Martial, and infinitely less than Catullus, of course. It's not as though his corruption constitutes any loss to the sublime trans-temporal conversation called World Literature. And, on some at least semi-conscious level, the Cibbers and Helprins of this world must be aware of their own ephemerality. So why shouldn't they allow themselves to succumb to the lurid type of temptation that the likes of us will never know? It takes a Son of Thunder to stare down the purple and scarlet Whore. And it takes a son of something much bigger than that to say "Get thee behind me, Satan."
Luckily for us, we are mere web writers, insubstantial blips on the broadcast spectrum, and we can only dream about the Great Satan buttonholing us in our virtual wilderness. We white trash from that trailer park in the ionosphere would tip over like a round-heeled flat-backer if we found ourselves in Helprin's Gucci's. Every writer is a potential toady, or "fart-catcher," as the Great Cham's contemporaries put it. It's been that way since the "Sons of Homer" grabbed their ankles for Pisistratus. Our egos are open sores. Otherwise, why would we be scribbling instead of climbing the corporate ladder or getting laid or something normal like that? Mark Helprin, that dutiful secretor of Senatorial oratory, with all the standard cretinous diction and mongoloid parallelism, is more disgusting than us only by degree.
But there have been exceptions to the law I just promulgated about all writers being potential fart-catchers. No doubt some exceptions are seated amongst us today. And, standing here at this podium, I have been thinking of the greatest exception of all. Pace Rexroth, I do know of at least one Baudelaire in Babylon. This particular poet was such a Baudelaire, in fact, that he got booted out of Babylon and sent to a place almost as remote and unreal as cyberspace itself.
As a personal acquaintance of the bestselling epigrammatist we've been discussing, this guy had the chance to kiss some really big ass, the biggest in the known world. In these latter days, when any ambitious young writer spends more time with his fingers soaking in a manicure trough than wrapped around a pen, his head immobile under the unctuous mitts of a pricey hair technician than sailing in the breezy firmament of letters, and his two most strenuous mental disciplines are rehearsing his Hollywood-style elevator pitch and learning how to order wine, just in case he gets to "do lunch" with a currently hot author's representative--it's hard to imagine someone deliberately blowing his big chance.
But blow it this particular poet did. (His name, incidentally, was Decimus Junius Juvenalis--Juvenal, for short.) He had an "in," and was but a simper away from gaining entree into the midst of the glitterati of the richest empire on earth. And not only did he neglect to deploy the appropriate interpersonal skills, not only did he refuse to pucker up his ass-kissing muscles, but he threw away the dream-opportunity of a careerist's lifetime by insulting a favorite sexual plaything of the empress.
How can this behavior be explicable? We can only throw up our hands and assume that Juvenal was some kind of a historical sport, a freak ahead of his time, for he fits Rexroth's description of today's poets to a tee: "...they can only vomit in the faces of the despots who offer them places in the ministries of the talents, or at least they are nauseated in proportion to their integrity."
Imagine how smarmy Mark Helprin had to be in order to nuzzle his way into Senator Bob Dole's inner circle, where anyone even tangentially connected to books other than the cookable kind was looked upon as a commie atheist, or worse. Then ponder soberly upon this undistractable seer and teller of truth, this Decimus Junius Juvenalis, who was so desirous of tearing down all privileged idiocy no matter where it reared its puffy face, that he couldn't even hold his tongue in the presence of the autocrat of the world.
The mighty have always flattered themselves with the presence of show people. And occupying a prominent position in the Palatine inner circle was a certain high-strung pantomime dancer, who coincidentally happened to share the name of this very town in which we are gathered today. This Paris was the Marilyn Monroe of Silver Age Rome (he was no female, strictly speaking, but you know how the Greco-Romans were). He was a fixture of the court: not the best choice of person to make fun of--at least not before he, himself, fell out of the ruling family's favor, and was murdered by them in cold blood, as Marilyn Monroes tend to be.
We don't know what Juvenal said to Paris, but it must have been as savagely indignant as his poetry, because it got him smacked from Italy, from Europe, clear out of the ballpark known today as the temperate zone. While circumspect Martial was allowed to stick around and take pleasure cruises down to Naples, to be seen affecting Grecian attire and angling for sardines off the porticoes of rich patrons' bayside vacation villas, our impolitic Juvenal was exiled among the beast-worshipping fellaheen of Upper Egypt, from which inhospitable outpost even the hardiest centurion returned prematurely decrepit, if at all. He was damned to Syene, the driest city in the world, previously known to the prophet Ezekiel as Seveneh, the absolute southernmost limit of Egypt, after which came the no-man's land of Ethiopia. The natives so far upriver were not habitual cannibals--just when they got drunk. Talk about a hardship post. It was definitely not Alexandria with its generous colonnades and cool marble porticoes. The coiners of the famous phrase "Bum-Fuck Egypt" surely had Juvenal's place of banishment in mind. Broiling there on the cancerous tropic, Syene was the second grimmest frontier outpost known in those days before the unfortunate discovery of Japan (where I languish now).
The grimmest frontier outpost known in those days was the Island of Patmos, which is where, at the same time, and for a not entirely dissimilar crime, Emperor Domitian stranded another literary man (of sorts): an excitable old fellow with the colorful moniker "Son o' Thunder," who'd quaked at the foot of his best friend Jesus' gallows sixty years earlier and never quite gotten over the emotional trauma. John (his real name) beguiled his perhaps too ample leisure time on Patmos by scribbling away at the Apocalypse which I quoted a couple of seconds ago, and which I quote again: "...lo, the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood. And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind..."
I think you will agree that, while it does possess a certain epileptoid charm if couched in Elizabethan English, John's Revelation cannot exactly be described as a work of the highest art, any more than can the Gospel or Epistles of John, which were also composed, traditionally at least, by the same person. Unlike Juvenal, their contemporary and fellow disaffiliated person (whose literary fate, as we shall see, was strangely hitched to theirs), this John, or these Johns, and the other members of their literary set, or sect, were pretty crappy writers--as Saint Augustine later couldn't help but notice, to the mortification of his soul. So, in this case, Rexroth's thesis is secure: the followers of the "disgraced magician" (as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity was known back then) were no Baudelaires in Babylon, or even out of it. Nietzsche put it best: "To have glued this rococo New Testament... to the Old Testament... is the greatest sin that literary Europe has on its conscience." But I don't need to tell you guys that, in the great demographical scheme of things, almost nobody can appreciate, or even dimly recognize, uncrappy writing. As this good news was intended for everyone, not just Baudelaires like us, a certain Hemingwayesque dumbing-down was necessary.
But let your souls be reassured when I say this to you: what those crappy writers were doing is jam-packed with significance for us e-literati: spiritually, of course (because even the unsmutched souls of us non-Cibbers need saving), but technically as well. Starting in Juvenal and John's day, the first century after Christ, at the beginning of the first millennium AD, just as now at the outset of the third, a revolution in publishing--or at least in alphabet-based communication--was taking place. It was a revolution almost as wrenching as the one we are fomenting right here and now--if we may be permitted so to dignify our behavior within a bottle's throw of the Boulevard Saint Michel, where, thirty-four years ago, our political and moral betters proclaimed their "outright rejection of the capitalist technocrat university" and battled bloodily with the police. None of us seems to be hemorrhaging at the moment. But we can't all live in interesting times, and hell can only be raised to that level which the moment in history allows.
There's always the time machine of imagination. Take yourself back in time further than a mere thirty-four years. Go clear back to the days when this town was called Lutetia, and it covered not much more than the island in the Seine where that big buttressed cathedral now stands. Imagine yourself to be a pagan or Jew walking around in the moonlight of a chilly March night. The first ominous indication of the coming revolution which you will see is a cheap traveler's edition of the notoriously pornographic Milesian Tales, clutched in the left hand of a guy jacking himself off on a public portico, where he's camped among other unkempt wayfarers who couldn't afford proper lodging for the night.
The second harbinger of the coming upheaval of the whole world's literary and spiritual life will be in the hands, or, rather hand, of a follower of the aforementioned disgraced magician. This meek saint has also staked a modest pitch on the public portico, and is trying to ignore the embarrassing wanker on the next pallet by burying his nose in a collection of epistles from someone called the Evangelist. Naturally you'll assume, from the configuration of his reading material, that he is a self-lover as well, and his ilk also, by association. And you will add that to the list of their demerits, right after baby sacrifice, blood drinking, random urban incendiarism, and general unclubbability.
What they have done, as far as you can tell from the distance you wisely maintain between yourself and these vagabonds, masturbators and Christians, is to steal and vandalize real books. These barbarians have sliced a proper scroll into its constituent parts, and stuck them together along one edge, all in a pile, like the grimy working copy of a ship's manifest or some debased sausage retailer's account book, only larger, so as to be suited to serve as a palimpsest for--well, you wouldn't want to call it literature, this bent stuff which disaffiliated types and perverts and weird cultists like to salivate on and snickeringly pass among their socially corrosive selves. In other words, as you took your evening constitutional through the streets of Lutetia two thousand years ago, you would be harboring the same not necessarily unjust suspicions about the users of the codex as people unweaned from print today harbor about us habitués of the web.
It's hard to overemphasize the utter discontinuity that was developing. The immemorial primacy of the non-Christian majority's favorite knowledge delivery system (enshrined on the very capitals of the Ionic order) was being challenged. The hegemony of the wound-up book would eventually unravel altogether at the hands of these tent-makers and itinerant sawbones and unpopular smalltime tax farmers. The followers of the disgraced magician were immersed up to their wrists in the first copies of not only The Book, but also the book, as we know and revere it.
And none too soon. Despite the 2.4 million-dollar price tag on that 120-foot spool of onion skin covered specifically in "typing" (to quote catty old Capote) which ultra-glamorous Christie's auctioned off last May, this involved format was already a dinosaur 2000 years ago. A Bill Gates-like spirit of enmity toward innovation and the free flow of knowledge had overtaken the mainstream communications industry of antiquity, and technical improvements could only be effected on the fringes, in semi-secret, by the Pauls, Tituses, Timothys, Lukes and Linuxes of the day.
The scroll was unwieldy as a wooly mammoth's trunk tangled in its tusks. Like Bill Gates' Internet Explorer, it was a chore to use, constantly tearing or crashing, as the case may be. It was an impediment outright to close reading. What passed under your eyeballs was immediately spun into a coil at one side, and could only be recalled by a laborious process of backtracking, during which you must relinquish and most likely lose your present place. It needed both hands, and etiquette required its being rewound after use, like today's rental videos. Uncooperative volumes were a favorite subject of vase painters. The scroll couldn't be better designed for the purposes of a tyrant like Pisistratos or a prideful monarch like Eumenes of Pergamum, who consider books as a means of buttressing authority, to be perused gingerly, under strict supervision, in the marble confines of the royal library, not objects of pleasure to be carried on picnics or stained purple in wine shops. It was suited particularly to the rich, most of whose reading was done out loud, to them, by Greekling slaves, whose lives were meant to be largely composed of inconvenience.
The codex, on the other hand, was ideal for the scrambling existence so many of the early saints were forced to lead. The entirety of the volume didn't strain constantly on either side of the bit you happened to be trying to read at the moment, so it could be made of much cheaper stuff than a scroll, yet would still last longer, even if you bled profusely on it. When the soldiers came smashing down your door with their hobnail boots and dragged you off to be in tag-team matches with hungry mastiffs in the arena, you didn't have time to rewind. You could, however, slam shut your little rectangular solid and tuck it under your tunic. In America, I'm sure palm pilots will come in similarly handy when the Ministry of Homeland Security hits its stride later this year.
The physical qualities of the codex lend themselves to individual study on the part of someone who requires the mediation of neither Greekling slave nor priest between himself and his reading material, whose relationship with God is as personal as it can only be during those unimaginably privileged epochs when that particular entity has, in living memory, walked among us. God's word is there, conforming to the shape of your lap, the very best news of all time. Easy to read, simple to understand, effortless to consult, spread generously on pages that can be turned backwards or forwards at will, written on both sides with all the natural economy of universal truth itself, the codex provides reference readily as any non-electronic medium can. And--marvel of marvels--the dog ear suddenly becomes an option.
Nevertheless, the proper pagan literati scorned the new way of packaging literature, much as their moral descendants would later turn up their noses at the first paperbacks, and now sneer at e-lit. The intelligentsia of late antiquity clung to their cachet-dripping rolls of papyrus and parchment, the coffee table books of a coffeeless time and place--and these were coffee table books par excellence because, to be used, they required a table and a floor upon which to set that table. That substantial numbers of the new codex folk had no dependable access to such luxuries surely added to the appeal.
The Roman elite insisted on deluxe pumiced ends, chamois covers and ribbons of genuine Tyrian purple to tie the whole cylinder together. This forced poets to seek out the richest patrons who could afford to underwrite such lavish production values. Thus, patronage remained firmly in the hands of the same sort of people who today coo in appreciation of the smell and feel of paper and ink and embossed covers, and moan that literature simply cannot speak to them through that inhuman screen--as if the alphabet were intended to engage any sense-organ but the eyeball. Pretension and conspicuous consumption flourished among the pagan literati, even as the quality of what they read took a nose dive. Juvenal, who they were still ignoring and would continue to ignore till their Weltanschauung had unwound itself all the way to the bitter end of the final reel, was the last Latin poet worthy of being called a Baudelaire. There's nobody worth mentioning after him.
Can it be a surprise that, in his lifetime, far from being distributed by a major communications empire from one end of the known world to the other, Juvenal's works languished in utter obscurity, and continued to do so till the fourth century of our era, by which time it was necessary to provide scholia to aid comprehension? During the centuries it took to establish itself in the public mind, how did Juvenal's poetry survive? A manuscript or two in the back reaches of some curio collector's private stock room?
It's likely that his stuff never saw the inside of a scroll. By the time he finally reached the public awareness (a couple of centuries too late to do him any good--as far as we are able to ascertain without consulting revealed religion), the humble codex had been declared undisputed king of books, and the disgraced magician, whose followers had pioneered its use, held a comparable position in heaven. The works of Juvenal's equally marginalized contemporaries, the Johns and the various committees of faux-Matthews, theoretical Lukes, a.k.a.-Marks, et al., had become, to put it mildly, quite well established--inelegantly composed as they were. (So much for polishing and rewriting; perhaps it's better that the great satirist was never in a position to review the New Testament.)
Juvenal's works gained a toehold in the public awareness at about the same time that Constantine the Great hallucinated the gallows of Christ superimposed on the sun, a bit of graffiti scrawled underneath. (We don't know if it was scrawled on airborne parchment or asbestos-treated papyrus, or if the molten surface of the star itself took the letters, or if our own ionosphere was being literarily engaged for the first time.) By this interesting coincidence, our poet-hero finally got his big break, and got to do the Big Lunch, even as Constantine gave the Christians theirs: granting them total freedom of religion, and founding the Empire of Christ, to be administered from the new imperial residence at Byzantium, which he renamed after himself and reconsecrated to God's mom.
The codex had ascended to a sovereignty that would remain undisputed outside the synagogue till less than ten years ago, when we baby-sacrificers and blood-drinkers, we unclubbable burners of buildings and practitioners of other alternative lifestyles, came skulking along with our own upstart medium. Now our forbears' mode of transmitting texts is poised to make way--assuming the web doesn't collapse in the meantime.
What an enormous assumption. I don't know about you, but if I were America's Minister of Homeland Security, capturing and interrogating Muslims and detaining them in secret for extended periods of time without benefit of counsel would be second on my list of Things to Do Today, just after killing the web. How could I ever maintain a robust Ministry of Homeland Security when subversive cybernauts like you keep bouncing ideas and information off each other, not to mention poems and stories, in a "free and unfettered manner," like the saint and the wanker we left camping on the island in the Seine?
The time will soon arrive when today's New York-London publishing axis will almost look like a free press in retrospect. Say the Bush administration hires a highly efficient Minister of Homeland Security, and he suborns and recruits every clever white teen boy in the country, and they set up a world-wide system of firewalls that makes the Chi-coms' look like a corroded fly screen by comparison, and nothing gets through to our monitors ever again but Islamophobic propaganda, Mark Helprin's cloying schmaltz, and Microsoft come-ons.
It might not even require the intervention of the coming totalitarian regime to bring an end to our world. Bill Gates, in his own apolitical, amoral, anal-oriented way, will probably do it all by himself, in the name of free enterprise. We exist at his whim, and he knows it. The web as it presently exists makes him petulant and fretful, because he's not making a big enough killing off it to satisfy his mutant gluttony. He has every intention of destroying our plane of existence.
Say he manages to realize his heart's ambition, and he chokes every browser but his own out of existence. That will leave him free to cause every unpaid-for link on the net to refer back to an advertisement for one of his inferior products (virus sponges all). And suppose he cuts our lines of communications as well. He buys up every email service, just as he did hotmail.com, and deep in the fine print buries the interesting bit of news that that he now owns the copyright to everything we send, therefore controls the fate of all our stories and poems and essays and novels, our letters to the world, as Emily Dickinson called them. You can imagine what will become of the ones that don't directly redound to the benefit of Microsoft. To continue to exist as e-literati, we'd all have to become worse than Mark Helprin: we wouldn't just be speechwriters for the new Domitian, we'd be ad writers for the silicon Antichrist. The whole web edifice, too good to be true in the first place, will collapse under the weight of Bill Gates' sociopathic greed. But what can you expect from a guy who named his company after his dick?
Will the destruction of the net destroy us as writers? Any medium is ephemeral. The twin towers of papyrus and parchment, those prideful pinnacles, were brought down by Arabs, who acted as deliverymen for the Chinese invention of paper, which itself, in turn, is a house of cards, a Babylonian skyscraper, tumbling even now before our electronic one-two punch. And we web writers are just waiting our turn. We are not even as secure as Keats. His name was at least written on water, which is a tangible substance--more than can be said for our directed drifts of electrons. Words written on water don't depend for their existence on an elaborate and vulnerable infrastructure of fiber-optic lines and telecommunications satellites and nuclear power plants and so forth.
But we writers have always found a Patmos or a Bum-Fuck Egypt in which to strand ourselves and flourish in all our agony, while we wait for another Constantine to come along and set us up as first-class citizens, finally, where we belong and have never yet been: at the very top of the pecking order, instead of just underneath it, catching farts and serving as moral vates. Give it time. Soon we will all drink champagne in the new Constantinople. We'll be the "hierophants of unapprehended inspiration, the mirrors of gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present," and our legislation will at last be acknowledged.
While we're waiting for that to happen, we can turn our disaffection inside out and into a privilege. No money or literary groupies to distract us: what a stroke of luck! We have nothing to stop us from digging in and making like Decimus Junius Juvenalis. While his more successful and presumably happier friend, Martial, lounged in the presence of quality and sipped their fine vintages, leaving behind nothing to represent himself to the ages but brief epigrams designed not to tax the attention spans of preoccupied magistrates and silk gauze-swathed Patrician pathics, our hero Juvenal, isolated and broiling in the glare and grit that blew off the Wadi Hammamat, produced complete long poems, fully developed works that you can sink your whole consciousness into again and again without losing the sensations of sheer novelty and delight.
Unless the cosmos is disposed in such a way that there's an afterlife (and I heartily doubt it--but your guess is as good as mine; the original wielders of the codex had certain notions on the subject), and unless this afterlife includes an element of personal omniscience, or at least a burst of trans-temporal awareness--then Juvenal never, or has never, stopped thinking he failed. He never learned any better than to consider all his poems a waste of time and ink and expensive papyrus, doomed to crumble to dust not long after his body did. He "fouled his life up," in the words of T. S. Eliot, describing the pursuit of the poetic vocation.
Meanwhile his "failure" has earned him nothing less than adjectival status. He is in Websters and the O.E.D., not just in citations, but as an entire entry, all to his glorious and unforgotten self. He has joined the select group of authors whose names have become grammatical constructions modifying something besides their own specific work. This unsmutched, incorruptible man, who wrote so beautifully and died in such utter loneliness, has left us with the word Juvenalian, which denotes corrosive satire--just the thing that got him uninvited to Domitian's soirees on the Palatine Hill. It also has earned him, in subsequent ages, a reputation as the undisputed king of Silver Latin authors, and the emperor of all satirists, regardless of language or time or place. By actual readers, as opposed to book-mongers (who, thanks to Fellini, make more money off Petronius), he is considered to be the greatest Latin poet after Virgil--some would say including Virgil. Catullus and Martial are not even in the running.
Proverbially, "the net has changed everything." What has it changed? Nothing, for the writer. Nothing of importance, at any rate. He's still alone, like Juvenal, with nobody to converse and contend with but himself and his worthier forbears: Kenneth Rexroth, Keats, Kit Marlowe and the rest. It doesn't matter if a king or a merchant or nobody at all is breathing over his shoulder. Whenever and wherever the writing is going well, nobody exists but the person doing it. And when a story or poem is well written, it has a way of surviving (although there is no way to test that hypothesis, obviously). The Iliad and the Odyssey toughed it out clear through the dark ages of the Dorian invasion, when writing itself was forgotten. The codex is a great invention, as is the net, but both are completely devoid of interest except as delivery systems for the greatest invention of all: the alphabet--which itself can readily enough take a back seat to human memory. The poet may need to revert to formulaic oral verse, he may need to shut his reading and writing eyes, as Homer did, and go on the road and begin to chant. But he will be no worse off, and no better off, than he is in now, and always has been.
We're scribbling hostages to fortune, and there is no guarantee that anything will refrain from drying up and fluttering away. Our stuff might not even stick around long enough to prove our efforts more than vain to our own nephews. Traces remain of neither Nero's Fall of Ilium nor Claudius' histories of Carthage and Etruria, and these men were better placed even than Mark Helprin, if that can be imagined. I have a great uncle whose novels were made into Clark Gable and Alan Ladd movies, who lived like a king on the Riviera, and even abebooks.com can't locate his titles or his name. And, remember, unlike us, these guys used to be in hard copy in a big way.
In his excellent essay, "Adoption of the Codex Book: Parable of a New Reading Mode," which I read on the web at booknotes.com, Gary Frost says, "The adoption of the codex among early Christians is as explainable as the attraction of modern sectarians to cyberspace. With both groups there has been a need for a reading and communication mode suited to construct a society of odd, dispersed and beleaguered individuals."
Odd, dispersed and beleaguered...well, I don't know about you, but he's certainly got my number. In a couple of days I will leave Lutetia and be sent back to my place of apparently permanent exile on a remote and sulfurous island that bears the barbarous name Kyushu. You can't get much more dispersed than that, or disaffiliated.
But for the moment, here we are, gathered in the City of Light. We have our own conference at the world's greatest university. Let's enjoy the moment. We can pretend that we have a secure supply of our own glowing species of papyrus, and nobody's threatening to slap an embargo on it. Let's just pretend that the hackers and the Arabs are going to keep a certain pharaonic little prick away from our gates for a good long while.
We are all Juvenals, and the web is our Bum-Fuck Egypt. The web's our Patmos, and we share it with the ranting epileptoid Sons o' Thunder of our time, our beloved fellow deportees, who dare to write the truth about, for example, America's Reichstag fire last September. We're saints producing and propagating the apocalypses of the day, but also the good news of the future. We're Baudelaires kicked, safely and gratefully, out of Babylon.