Library of the artist as a young man
Would it not be presumptuous of me if, in order to appear convincingly objective and down-to-earth, I enumerated for you the main sections or prize pieces of a library, if I presented you with their history or even their usefulness to a writer?
— Walter Benjamin, Unpacking My Library
Walter Benjamin is intellectually admired as a cipher for an epoch that revealed the actual, if not existential, powerlessness of modern European intellectual thought and theory in the face of the twentieth-century’s tyranny and brutality. Yet beyond the exquisite prescience of his ideas and interpretations of the modern world’s freedoms and failings, Benjamin’s suicide in fascist Catalonia as the Gestapo’s pincers closed on him remains the black raven over his door; it’s the tragic knowledge that allows one to read his remarkable essay Unpacking My Library—as succinct and insightful an interpretation of the mania of ‘the collector’ as one will find—with a superannuated degree of melancholia over and above that which is inherent in the dead souls of the writer’s books. Staying up past midnight unpacking his treasured books from their dusty crates, Benjamin recognised that the greatest fear of the collector is to accept that his objects of possession, desire and connoisseurship are themselves an entrapment: the collector ultimately must accept that his possessions have value not because they come alive in him, but instead it is he who lives in them. The risk is always spiritual imprisonment behind a wall of material phantoms.
It was with this in mind that I scheduled a meeting with young artist Samuel Quinteros at his home in Annandale in Sydney's inner-west to inspect his library. Now, having never met nor so much as spoken to the artist prior to knocking on his door that night it was a necessarily awkward arrangement. Inviting a stranger into one’s home under the proviso of allowing them to evaluate and interpret one’s possessions, in this case the artist’s library as a central element of a young man’s literary and moral education, is understandably intimidating. To pretend to take the measure of a man from the titles that line his bookshelf is, surely, the height of presumption if not pretension, a spurious claim to the baseless authority of evaluator over subject, while also being, potentially, an utterly anachronistic unit of measurement in the digital age. I mean, does the generation younger than my own even buy books any more, much less collect them with a view to forming a library for pleasure and self-education?
One of the most mercurial aspects of a personal library is that each and every book is an artefact that never changes yet is never the same. Every reading and rereading of a book is an act of self-discovery in a specific moment in time that is inescapably infused with all of the other intersecting memories and desires bound up in an inner life and a public persona. This is why we find ourselves instantly attracted to people who share a love of a favourite book; what is shared is not simply the act of reading but a parallel intimacy and a strangely displaced act of self-investment that has powerfully deep moral roots in the self-actualisation of personality. Every book—every good book—is a world that is only ever inhabited by one reader at a time in the sense that we can’t share the experience of reading, let alone the experience of self-recognition. Books find us and we find ourselves in books. The sad truth is that in so doing we are made all too aware of the limits of human connectedness in the act of reading and our private recollections of the otherwise dead, throwaway memories that the Prince of Denmark, lost of all his mirth, dismissed as just so many ‘words, words, words.'
So I pull five books from the shelves of the library of the artist to recall …
Only a lie can redeem us.
— Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times
Several weeks following my attendance of Slavoj Žižek playfully titled lecture Let us Demand the Impossible: Communism, I noted to a friend, a philosopher and university lecturer, the joy I felt in seeing Žižek lose himself in delicious argument to the point where his oatmeal grey t-shirt was drenched in perspiration. This friend, who had met the Giant of Ljubljana during an academic conference in London some years ago and had shared dinner with him along with several colleagues, students and hangers-on, admitted ‘Žižek is charismatic, this is not disputed. But let me tell you one thing: there is no excuse, philosophically speaking or otherwise, for body odour. The man stinks.’
I am not even alive enough to know how to kill myself.
— Primo Levi, If This is a Man
When he was fourteen he passed the entrance exams for the Massimo d’Azeglio liceo classico, a prominent secondary school in Turin, his city of birth. He was bullied and taunted. He was bookish. He was a Jew. He took solace in a passion for Seneca and in the moral guidance of his favourite teacher, Cesare Pavese, who later became one of Italy’s most acclaimed twentieth-century poets. Fifty-three years later the student was no longer young. He was an old man. He had witnessed much. His body was found on the ground floor of his three-storey Turin apartment on the morning on 11 April 1987. A line in a poem of Pavese’s reads: ‘no one ever lacks a good reason for suicide.’
And he was pleased with what he saw.
— Genesis 1:1-2:4, Good News Bible
I first read a bible at the age of eight and like all good readers I began at the beginning. In a faded weatherboard holiday rental in the New South Wales south coast town of Kiama I awoke before dawn, excited at the prospect of a full day at the beach, to discover a copy of the Good News Bible in a drawer of a tattered teak bedside table. I never made it past the first page, troubled by the startling admission that after creating the universe and all living things God possessed vanity in his masterpiece. What struck me most, I can still recall, was the naked pride in the act: if God’s power is indeed limitless and unchallenged, my young mind reasoned, why should He take pause in a moment of self-admiration of His creation? Later that year at the behest of my parents I prepared for my First Communion, the ceremony that marks a young Catholic’s first acceptance of the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. In an unprepossessing suburban brick-veneer church on a sweltering spring Sunday I impatiently stood in queue to receive the Body of Christ. Returning to my seat I removed the papery yeast wafer from my mouth and with sticky fingers adhered it to the underside of the pinewood pew.
I’ve been drunk for about a week now, and I thought it might sober me up to sit in a library.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
I fell asleep during The Great Gatsby. Or, more accurately, I dozed off here and there during an extraordinary nine-hour production by New York-based theatre company Elevator Repair Service of Gatz, a verbatim reading and enactment of Fitzgerald’s classic novel by an ensemble cast of actors. I was tired and a little drunk. ‘How was it?’, a friend asked. I told her it was probably the best theatrical experience I’ve had. ‘But you fell asleep!’ she admonished incredulously. It was the reading I told her, word by word, line by line, page by page. Waking up to the sound of someone reading was exactly what made it permissible to fall asleep.
Let us imagine a rising generation with this bold vision, this heroic desire for the magnificent.
— Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy
In my final year at art school, the same tertiary institution Quinteros is now himself about to graduate from, I wrote in an essay for a class titled Theories of Art Practice: ‘When Nietzsche wrote The Birth of Tragedy in 1870-71 during the Franco-Prussian war and published it a year after at the age of 28, he did so in what must have been an excited and galvanised passion if one is to judge its disparate structure and exposition. As a whole, The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music, to give it its full and final title, is suffused with contradictory ideas, both vague and explicit, a book dedicated to his then close friend and confidant Richard Wagner, and self-aware of the public’s probable distaste at finding an aesthetic problem taken so seriously.’
© Pedro de Almeida 2012.