“Slow Fires” and the Morgan Library

The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas spent his last days in drunken stupor at the legendary Chelsea Hotel on Manhattan’s W.23rd St. He died on Nov. 9, 1953, age 39, while on tour with his poetic play Under Milk Wood. A short distance across town, the Morgan Library at Madison and 36th St., today houses manuscripts of his poems, including the one shown above, a late poem titled “In the White Giant’s Thigh.”

This manuscript is part of an exhibition of recent acquisitions displayed at the former home of financier J.P. Morgan. The poem, written in blue ink in Thomas’ careful calligraphy, rests inside a vitrine. This is an early draft of the poem—38 lines, only 16 of which remain in this order in the published poem. The remaining 22 lines are either revised or abandoned. You can clearly see Thomas’ revisions, a window into the poet’s creative process.

Thomas had a resonant and earthy voice, a troubadour’s even. You can hear him read his short poem “In My Craft or Sullen Art,” about the work of writing poetry, in this video:

In another vitrine is a letter from Vincent Van Gogh to Paul Gauguin. Vincent had taken a house in the center of the old Roman town of Arles earlier in 1888, and here he pleads with his friend Gauguin to join him. Vincent includes a drawing of his modestly furnished bedroom.

Van gogh to gaughin
Letter from Vincent Van Gogh to Paul Gauguin.

Gauguin arrived at the Arles railway station in the dead of night, Oct. 23, and stayed in the odd shaped, yellow house with Van Gogh until their acrimonious separation nine weeks later at Christmas. The story is told in day-by-day detail in Martin Gayford’s book “The Yellow House”

Amazon.com link

By chance I was reading this book at the time I encountered the letter and drawing above. Van Gogh later made a painting from this letter sketch:

Also on display at the Morgan was a manuscript fragment of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony:

Its chicken scrawl jabbings are testament to the legendary personal and compositional untidiness of Ludwig Van. And in contrast, a page from Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” replete with a charming caricature drawn by the composer at the bottom of the page.

Puccini: "Madame Butterfly" and caricature.

Viewing these pieces so closely that I could see the paper fibers was an incredibly intimate experience. It was as near to a physical record of the artistic process as you could ever hope to have. The sense of the immediacy of pen on paper seemed vital and alive. And it is an experience so immediate that there is no parallel in the world of film. In photography, the closest like experience I have had was viewing the actual contact sheets with markings of Robert Frank’s “The Americans,” currently on display at the Met Museum in NYC.

The Morgan Library houses a vast collection of rare books, first editions, incunabula, drawings, watercolors, and photographs—works on paper. If you go to their website, you can choose a slideshow of its many departments, everything meticulously catalogued and preserved. These are records of our culture. Here is a link to the highlights. Wander through the slideshows of the different departments:

www.themorgan.org link

What strikes me here with such force is the wonder that these fragile pieces of paper have survived the ravages of time. What record we do have of the artistic process recorded in these papers, is due to visionary/ obsessive collectors and scholars who have sensed that more than just information resides here: that there inheres a palpable sense of the artist himself that is the particular province of such papers.

I do not collect manuscripts, signatures, or signed first editions (though I recently did acquire a signed first edition of David Foster Wallace’s masterwork, “Infinite Jest.”) But I do understand the almost visceral attraction that “papers” have for both scholar and collector. While I was in production on the film “Must Love Dogs” executive producer Brad Hall and I often shared our love of the music of Gustav Mahler. Director Gary David Goldberg must have overheard us verbally vamping. His wrap gift to me at the end of the show was a handwritten, signed note from Mahler to a colleague. It gives me a frisson of kinship with the great Austrian composer every time I look at it.

Documentary filmmaker Terry Sanders made a film in 1987 called “Slow Fires.”

Amazon.com link

Its point of departure is a conference held in Vienna in the grand Baroque hall of the National Library. Scholars, archivists and preservationists assembled here to discuss the slow deterioration of books and paper archives at libraries around the world. A montage of crumbling books, the “slow fire” of the acidic paper on which most modern books and newsprint are printed, gives grim evidence of what Library of Congress deputy librarian William Welsh calls “embrittlement,” the inexorable decay of paper, crumbling to the touch like dry, autumn leaves. He believes that fully one-quarter of the then 13 million documents in the collection are in severe danger. More than 77,000 additional ones per year are also in jeopardy. Even worse, this is an international phenomenon.

An irony is that the older the document, the more likely it is to be well preserved. Until 150 years ago, most books and papers were rag rather than wood pulp based and were acid free, PH neutral or safely alkaline. It is not so much the deep historic record of man that is at risk (though that as well) but the more recent record of modernity. It is not so much the valuable papers of our culture that are being lost; it is the contracts, court records, pulp fiction, magazines and newspapers that are most at risk.

Such items are not worth much money to collectors and are of arguable artistic merit to libraries such as the Morgan. One scholar says: “The great task of libraries, worldwide, is the preservation of the ordinary.” In 2001, novelist Nicholson Baker wrote a book that attacked what he sees as the systematic destruction of newspapers by some libraries, the very institutions empowered to protect printed materials. The book, “Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper,” has been ground zero for an ongoing controversy about how to preserve humanity’s quotidian records before they turn to dust. He argues that microfiche, digital tapes, and computer files have created a false sense of security.

Amazon.com link

In 1999, he founded the American Newspaper Repository to house and protect the only existing copies of many American newspapers, long consigned to oblivion by libraries.

American Newspaper Repository link

In a July 2000 issue of the New Yorker, Nicholson tells how he bought, saved and stored many 19th century American newspapers.

The New Yorker article link

19th century newspaper cartoon.

Oddly enough, many of the newspapers he has saved were in the collection of the British Library. Nicholson bought a trove of them; the other major bidder was a dealer from Pennsylvania who, it seems, intended to cut up the bound volumes and sell individual issues, the ones containing noted historical events, to collectors.

A decade after “Slow Fires,” Sanders made another documentary on the “preservation of knowledge in the electronic age," called “Into the Future.”

Amazon.com link

The issues addressed in this film extend the concerns for preservation of materials into new media, as well as the explosion of information from broadcast and electronic systems. There are interviews with Peter Norton and Tim Berners-Lee, “father of the world wide web,” both of whom question if and how we will be able to store and access information in formats that, unlike print, are not visible to the human eye. A promo logline for the film simply asks, “Will humans twenty, fifty, one hundred years from now have access to the electronically recorded history of our time?” A decade has passed since the making of this film, a decade where we are beginning to see these nightmares come true, as older tape formats fade into obsolescence. The much discussed AMPAS’ Sci-Tech Committee report, The Digital Dilemma, itself now two years old, addresses the manifold dimensions of the problem. I wrote a “Filmmakers Forum” essay in the June, 2008 issue of American Cinematographer magazine that discusses the concerns that many of us filmmakers have regarding the migrating of film materials into ever-changing digital tape formats.

The AMPAS report can be downloaded from their website. While its focus is mainly on motion pictures, there are reports on challenges in the fields of medicine, science, military, education and libraries. It makes for alarming reading:

www.oscars.org — The Digital Dilemma report link

Into the Future has interviews with several noted archivists from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Michael Martin of the JPL Planetary Data System division says simply that using any kind of tape as an archival medium is a “disaster.” Colleague Gary Walker gives a dramatic illustration of a then new 9-track reader that had been modified to try to migrate a tape recorded on an obsolete 7-track machine. The tape stutters back and forth, locked in semi rotation, a process he calls “maytaging,” as it struggles to transfer the information. And a few minutes later in the documentary, Jeff Rothenberg from RAND Corporation explains that most scientists are not much concerned with preservation. Their impetus is to “drop the past” and “charge into the future” looking for “new paradigms.”

This willful ostrich-like attitude is maybe understandable in a realm of science that places so much value on research—on the next new thing. But in the world of education and of protection of our cultural and historical heritage, it is irresponsible. And sadly, such willful abnegation of our motion picture history and archives is not difficult to find in some studio executive suites that are focused only on next week’s “tentpole” release and the quarterly stock report.

There is an irony to this debate about paper, tape or digital as the more enduring record of our culture. In the very early days of filmmaking, there was no mechanism for the copyright of finished movies. Paper prints were made from the finished motion picture, a frame-by-frame record. Only these were accepted by the Library of Congress as having the same protection as books. The individual frames of paper movies could be copyrighted. And that is how many very early films have been preserved, lovingly transferred by archivists from paper back to film, long after the nitrate negatives were lost or destroyed.

So, we are now back to paper, and to the Morgan Library vitrines that riveted me last month for several hours. There is something so immediate, so personal about the one-on-one encounter with these intensely personal pieces of paper. It is visceral, sensual. Certainly for my generation and perhaps for yours, even as a reader, it is much more compelling to hold a real book in your hands, rather than stare onto a computer screen--- or even into the very convenient Kindle that Amazon seems intent on hawking to all of America, the first thing you see on the Amazon homepage being a pitch to buy a Kindle.

Having said this, I admit that I am now reading Dracula from an online site (the book is in public domain) as part of the ongoing Infinite Summer national read that began last summer with David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest:

www.gutenberg.org Dracula link

I want to finish this essay on preservation with a very personal story. In early Sept. of 2001, I was in Galway, Ireland, conducting a week long filmmaking workshop. Afterwards, I decided to spend a few days in Dublin. I wanted to see the Abbey Theater and go to the sea coast at Sandycove to tread the stairs of the Martello Tower where James Joyce lived briefly, and where the first scene of his novel, “Ulysses,” unfolds.

Joyce Martello Tower at Sandycove.

James Joyce Tower link

On the afternoon of the 11th I walked over to Trinity College, which is located in central Dublin. I went into the Long Room of the library, one of the great repositories of early printed books. The room itself is an architectural marvel, its high vaulted ceiling and lengthy, narrow main floor look like the nave of a Gothic cathedral. The side “altars” on several floors are filled chock-a-block with the sacred relics of incunabula and rare tomes. Mounted on pedestals along the sides of the nave are busts of writers, a canonic literary Stations of the Cross.

Just beyond the Long Room is a small museum that houses the Book of Kells, a four volume medieval illuminated manuscript of the New Testament. It is one of the masterpieces of Western civilization dating back to the 9th century, transcribed from the even older Latin Vulgate. It is richly illustrated and the covers are incised, gilt and vividly colored.

Wikipedia Book of Kells article link

A multimedia display highlights the history of the book. Every day, a page is turned in each of the two displayed volumes.

This tourist friendly exhibit is like the Morgan Library on steroids; nonetheless, the experience becomes intensely moving.

It was while I was studying a page from the Gospel of John that the first plane struck the north tower of the World Trade Center.

The horrible irony of viewing one of the oldest, most venerated records of Western Civilization at the very moment that, an ocean away, rabid ideologues were destroying the Mecca of capitalist commerce, has been rooted in my soul ever since. What are the relentlessly warring parts of our nature that can both create and destroy on such a scale?

While researching this piece and thinking about the glories of culture embedded in and guarded by the world’s great libraries, public and private, I could not help but also reflect on the depravations that have been made upon these same institutions, of the attempts to eradicate an entire people’s history: of the burning of the great library of Alexandria in Ptolemaic Egypt; of Cardinal Cisneros torching the Moorish libraries of Granada, the last stronghold of Islam in Spain; of Torahs ripped from synagogues in Germany and book burnings of branded “degenerate” writers, in public bonfires during the Third Reich; of the wanton Serb shelling and firebombing of the National Library of Bosnia-Herzegovina in Sarajevo.

Our libraries are a promise and a threat. Where some see them as portals to an examined life, a life enriched by close, intimate encounters with our cultural documents, others see nothing that matters, or worse, only threats to their hidebound, dark orthodoxies.



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