An unpublished book of commentary on a beautiful and mysterious manuscript.
The only text in the book is the title page.
What Heaven Looks Like
Unpublished book (1994 - 2009)
What Heaven Looks Like is my favorite book. It is a commentary on a mysterious manuscript in Glasgow, an anonymous booklet of small round watercolor paintings with no captions. The book will be published, in its entirety, by Laboratory Books.
Here I have uploaded several contributions I made to the Huffington Post, trying to introduce the manuscript to a wider audience. (Turns out the Huffington Post isn't a great forum for lengthy, seriated texts.) These posts give a flavor of the MS, if not the book of commentary I wrote about it.
I am also posting an essay on the past and future of the emblem and emblem studies, published in Emblematica; it was originally a plenary talk given at the International Society for Emblem Studies, Chicago, July 2005.
Here is the Preface to the book:
A woman sits down to her secret work. She lives alone—her husband has died, and her children have grown and moved away. The church lingers in her thoughts, but she is no longer sure what its stories mean. It is the very end of the Renaissance, and the old certainties are gone. Even the myths and legends seem wrong as they drift in and out of her solitary thoughts.
She goes out the back of her house and walks up a slope to a woodpile. She selects a cut log, and carries it back to her room. She stands it on the floor next to her chair, and she leans over to look at the cut surface. She studies the the drops of dew and the damp soft bark. She moves her fingers in gentle circles, following the fine brown rings in the wood. Cracks score the surface like spokes of a wheel. She tests them with her fingernail.
The wood is a lovely picture, made by nature. It means nothing and it says nothing, and yet it is full of faint colors, and, as she looks longer, faintly moving figures. She takes a small sheet of paper and begins to paint.
The book you hold in your hands is a reproduction of a unique manuscript preserved in Glasgow, Scotland. The original is just pictures -- no words, no explanations. No one knows who painted it, or when. I think it was created by a woman who imagined what she saw in the ends of firewood logs. In one picture the wood is fresh and green, in another old and cracked, in a third moldy and peeling. From that I deduce she worked at her project over a long period, perhaps years. I think she lived alone, perhaps high up on a forested hillside -- at least that is how I imagine her. I have written this book to try to understand what she may have felt and thought.
Her pictures tell a strange and beautiful story of loss and uncertainty. She was deeply unsure about what she could believe. In her mind -- an amazing independent mind, as striking in its wordless way as Spinoza's, or Milton's -- the culture of community and belief had nearly stopped making sense. She thought hard about the Christian verities, and decided that little is known with any confidence. She was profoundly alienated from the dogmas of her day, and deeply skeptical about some the largest questions: the origin of the universe, the nature of God, and the possibility of heaven. She mused, too, on the loss of meaning in history and in human relations. I think of her as an irremediably lonely person.
In one sense, she was part of her time: the late seventeenth century saw an unprecedented erosion of faith, and a new awareness of inner life. At the end of this book, I have written about the artist’s time, and the crises of religion, history, and representation that were in the air.
But in another sense, she is eerily modern. Her doubt and isolation are modern, and so are her paintings. There are things in this book that were not accomplished in art before surrealism: she plants glassy eyes in dark roots, congeals a patch of air into an amphibious face, turns a ram into a block of ice. Nothing escapes her oddly distorting eye: in one painting God himself is shriveled into a greenish lump.
This is an astonishing, wonderful book. It is mysterious, daring beyond anything else done in its time, and uncannily modern in its diffident, lonely skepticism. It is ravishingly painted, with a sure, free hand and a mind less burdened by the opinions of authorities than any other I know. It is one of the masterpieces of that half-lost, very modern moment between the faded Renaissance and the overconfident Enlightenment.
Berkeley, 1996 - Galway, 1999 - Chicago, 2008