Bibliodeath: My Archives (With Life in Footnotes) by Andrei Codrescu
Andrei Codrescu was asked to contribute an essay about his relationship with archives to a book about private libraries. Instead, he wrote his own book, one that exploded the very concept of "archives." He examined the intellectual, cultural, political, and artistic shards and shrapnel flung by the explosion, and rebuilt a complex but complete conception of the systems of information storage that contain our every action. Bibliodeath is really two books, an exploration of "archives" and a story of how Andrei Codrescu lived with and through arrangements of words on bound paper, both told in his unique Dada-inspired erudition and both touching on broader aspects of our relationship to the written word.
As with all considerations of writing and technology, Codrescu prefaces Bibliodeath with his take on the death of the printed book. I'm suspicious of arguments predicting future human interactions with technology, but Codrescu doesn't proselytize for one medium or another, so much as offer oceanic imaginations for the reader to bathe in while coming to terms with the idea of "archives," and how that idea is changing with the development of digital archives. In his preface, Codrescu isolates one of the most important and neglected aspects of the print versus digital debate: the relationship between objects and significance. "The desecrated sacred book can only be a book. Holy texts... exist in every format but there are no riots over the removal of such a text from an electronic library, and there never will be. One can insult a book on the internet and cause a reality-based riot, but no such demonstration is possible if an individual or even an organization removes a sacred text from its devices" (emphasis in original). As abstract as Bibliodeath gets and as concerned as it is with digital and even metaphysical recording techniques, Bibliodeath is a story about how we invest objects with meaning, how we turn objects like books and notebooks, rings and roses, into stewards of our ideas, our emotions, and sometimes even ourselves.
In Codrescu's personal story, we meet two of his stewards: his original poet's notebook and a book of poetry by the Italian poet Renata Pescanti Botti. He bought his poet's notebook when he was a teenager forming his identity as a poet in Soviet controlled Romania, where the writer's workshop passed judgment more on writers' fitness as citizens than on the quality of their work. The notebook was a receptacle for Codrescu's transformation, and when he lost the notebook after immigrating to New York -- shifting it into another kind of archive -- it was like leaving behind scraps of molted shell. Codrescu wrote his own poems in the blank spaces contained in Botti's collection and lost that personal palimpsest too. This steward was eventually returned and published in a transcript and facsimile edition. The stewards offer another version of the "archives," and telling their story requires telling much of Codrescu's own story of fascism, immigration, identity, and poetry.
Most of the personal story is told in footnotes. In recent storytelling, the footnote has become a way to confront the reader with the complexity and alinearity of life. Footnotes show that life branches off, sub-divides, and wanders. But in Bibliodeath, the footnotes often fill the page. There is one described as "A Chekhov Novella" that is about seven pages long. What happens to the organization of a book when there is as much (or more) footnoted content as there is content? What do you call a footnote that devours the leg it bases? When footnotes take over, we are confronted with a not-quite-paradoxical idea; an accurate assessment of the content of our lives will reveal more noise than signal. Laid out on the page, there will simply be more words in the branches, sub-divisions, and wanderings than in the story.
Running through it all, or perhaps unifying it all, or perhaps being the point of it all, is Codrescu's unique erudition; his unabashed joy at the way words can be brought together into images and ideas that have significance even when they don't accumulate into our expectations of sense or storytelling. "I was the child of a minotaur and a printer," "They didn't understand that content disappears at certain speeds, leaving behind only color and motion, just like style in literature dispenses with content inside books" (emphasis in original), "I was an 18th-century scrivener tormented by rain, lust, and tuberculosis, hoping to be vindicated by the future," "I slid into the posthuman like a fly holding on to the flypaper it believes keeps it from falling." For readers who enjoy Codrescu's style, the elation of certain arrangements of words is the philosophical underpinning for those arrangements. The complex, abstract, and sometimes obtuse ideas catch up with the elation a moment later, as one catches one's breath, a drawing into the intellect of its particular oxygen.
Through this erudition, the exploration of "archives" touches on many different ideas and topics, both organized into the conceptual space of the footnote or in the natural course of fully exploring an aspect of the "archives" itself. The multitude of identities in the multilingual immigrant. The progression of the typewriter in literature. The conflict of spellcheck. One additional topic drew my attention: for me, Bibliodeath is as much about putting words on paper as it is about the paper holding the words.
"This instrument was the intuitive force I needed to explore the world of the sacred; the instrument itself was writing, it looked like a line of verse," "The result, poetry, is a collaboration between the demon who possesses the poet and the intelligence that studies it," "In this sense, the writing life is the life that cleans up after itself, it dredges the refuse that refuses to go away, and it orders it in neat lines for disposal," "And that had been poetry's purpose all along: the typesetter who first invented verse by breaking the continuous line of print had created storage space for the future." Taken with his last two works, The Poetry Lesson and Whatever Gets You Through the Night, Bibliodeath is the third volume in a single work about writing. The Poetry Lesson focuses on poetry, Whatever Gets You Through the Night on storytelling, and Bibliodeath on the fundamental physical actions of the writer and the relationship between the writer and the objects written on. If I taught a writing course, I'd assign the set.
Bibliodeath is about how our lives are collected in "archives," and how the actions, reactions, passive systems, active transgressions, appropriations, power dynamics, unconscious drives, typos, books, and notebooks surrounding, establishing, and being our lives become a reverse Golem: a being spitting out words for the world to collect. In a way, Bibliodeath is also about the permeable borders that surround us and our words, the border between our minds and the public, between the remembered and the forgotten, between the officially recorded and the metaphysically archived, "between the real and the virtual." As Codrescu concludes, "This essay is a history of how I got to that border, and how I moved to one or another side of it... Either side of the border between the 'real' and the 'virtual' is a province of technology: print in the 20th century, digitization in the 21st. The border looks now like a dotted line over the head of a cartoon character, soon to dissolve like clouds in Wordsworth's poem." We are all citizens of that border. Bibliodeath is a challenging and rewarding tour of our new nation, further proving that Codrescu is a unique and necessary writer.
Bibliodeath: My Archives (With Life in Footnotes) by Andrei Codrescu