Everything New Is Old Again

I’m a student in Dr. Panko’s class at Weber State. We’ve only met twice, and today was our first face-to-face discussion of the first 72 pages of TF.

I was chatting with another student (sorry, too soon to know names yet) about the old practice of illuminated texts. The most famous of these is Songs of Innocence and Experience by William Blake.

(My mother introduced us to The Tyger when I was 8 or 9, so it’s one of the first poems I learned. In my former life as an English major, 37 years ago, I studied the Romantics avidly, so this has always been a favorite time period for me.)

I forgot that I had already pulled this off my bookshelf to read again recently, so I’m scanning in the page with The Tyger to give everyone a sense of how Blake was able to incorporate text and image, a functionality that was sadly lost until Danielewski and other postmodern authors re-awakened it.

In what ways does Danielewski build from this tradition, and in what ways does he depart from it?




10 responses to “Everything New Is Old Again”

  1. chelseamaki says :

    I’d like to compare and contrast the two, but there’s too much of a jump from illuminated manuscripts to The Familiar. There’s a lot of media in between that could also be influencing Danielewski’s formatting decisions.

    The examples I’m thinking of are, but certainly not limited to, comic strips, comic books, cartoons, pop-up books, etc. Visual mediums have come a long way. While these things aren’t exactly the same as an illuminated manuscript, they do share in common core components, like text and image working in tandem to tell a story. Visual storytelling and graphic narratives are a long lasting, evolving tradition.

    I think that the illuminated manuscripts could be considered a stepping stone, not a bridge, to what is happening aesthetically in The Familiar. I think that you are looking in the right direction, though. The visual aspects of the novel are as important as the text, and it is imperative to be thoughtful of how the two work together to relay each narrative.

    • jimhutchins says :

      Chelsea, thanks for your thoughtful reply.

      I was thinking of trying to respond today in our classroom discussion, but I didn’t get the chance, and just as well because that gave me more time to process my thoughts.

      As you know, I come from a background as a biomedical scientist. One problem people have with evolution is the persistent idea of a “missing link”, i.e., that we are descended directly from apes.

      Of course, the reality is this: several million years ago, there was some sort of ancestral ape-like animal that gave rise to ourselves and our closest relatives: Homo sapiens, Pan troglodytes (chimpanzees), and Pan paniscus (bonobos).


      I think of the illuminated book as just this sort of precursor form. Neither human, nor ape, nor chimp, but sharing some characteristics of each that evolution changed over time. (Substitute some form of codex for each of the species, and substitute “culture” for “evolution”, and you get the idea.)

      Danielewski’s signiconic, or remediation of other media, is then just one offshoot of the illuminated book, of which graphic novels, pop-up books, comic books, etc. would be other modern representatives. Just because they arose from the same ultimate source, and because we see examples of convergent evolution (http://www.sciencedaily.com/articles/c/convergent_evolution.htm) in each, does not mean that Danielewski’s work *arose* from graphic novels. Rather, I am arguing that they both arise from the same ultimate source, and that source can be identified as the illuminated book.

      Thanks for the interesting discussion, which I hope we can continue. I’d invite others to chime in as well. If it’s going to be a dialogue, then we can have it in class 😉

      • sethdurf says :

        I don’t think the graphical elements of The Familiar are in the same spirit as those of an illuminated text of, say, the middle ages. I think there is fertile soil here to look through but I think it is rather less the fact that the text has been illuminated and more the context of the illumination itself, especially during the time period of the middle-ages. More succinctly, the comparison might better serve as one of purpose rather than aesthetic.

        Now I’m no scholar of medieval monastic text preservation, but I have read A Canticle for Liebowitz which, in my opinion, is just as good. /s

        But in seriousness most texts survived in that period of time because the catholic church took the time to collect and protect them. Those collections were literally a cache of knowledge which would carry through a time when most people, including royalty, were illiterate. At least in the west.

        Technology has reached a point where the option for a virtual life experience is possible. Microsoft just announced a hologram technology, for instance. http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2015/01/hands-on-with-hololens-making-the-virtual-real/

        Digital novels are ubiquitous and the printed book itself is something of a relic. The fact that we are reading a printed book at all informs the reader on the content of The Familiar where another text may not. I’m going to get a little out there so this may be a good time to move along to another comment. As more and more of our literature and collective human knowledge becomes digitized, it innately relies on a power source in order to display that information. If a catastrophic event takes place and access to electricity is cut off, there will be no way to access any of that information. As a race, humanity would have to rebuild society from the printed material which survives. Now I don’t think an apocalyptic event is a good comparison to the middle-ages because much of the world avoided throwing their bodily waste in the streets during this time, for example.

        So, I think it is a wholly legitimate comparison in the meta sense. So much of this text deals with the digitization or, more basically, the electrifying, of the human experience. The fact that we experience this type of material completely free from this mode definitely informs the reader. Though, I also have to agree with Chelsea in that there isn’t a super solid aesthetic bridge of comparison for an illuminated manuscript and The Familiar.

        TLDR: If the world ends, any survivors can make illuminated manuscripts from The Familiar and Mark Z, Danielewski will be canonized. In this sense the comparison is good.

      • chelseamaki says :

        Ah, I see. The evolution comparison makes a lot of sense. Thank you for sharing!

        In my comment, I suggested the other forms of media to make sure that we weren’t making a linear jump directly from illuminated manuscripts to The Familiar. I think there’s too much in between for me, personally, to make that jump.

        Ultimately, I wonder what the function is of comparing The Familiar to other types of media. As I continue to read the novel, I get the feeling more and more that The Familiar, like so much of Danielewski’s work, is trying to carve out a new genre to exist in.

        While the novel may draw upon traditions from other forms of media, I think that it is important to consider The Familiar as a new beast in need of classification.

      • atodd102015 says :

        What I wonder, chelseamaki, is if we need to classify this “new beast” at all. I think you’re right that it’s easy to overemphasize where it draws on other media, but to me, what the experimentation and intermediality does is show that the boundaries between media (especially in the contemporary scene) are permeable from the start. Classifying this might be trying to fix the borders of something that specifically rejects borders.

        On the other hand, it might be easy to take this too far. What we still have, foremost, is a novel doing some tricks. It requires us to re-purpose some of our tools of interpretation, but most of the toolbox’s contents are the same.

      • chelseamaki says :

        I think it’s correct to say that The Familiar rejects borders. And with that, I don’t think it belongs in the same box as an illuminated text. To try to squish it in with some other things that I understand (like a graphic novel or a comic book), I feel like I’m not doing The Familiar any favors.

        Also, if we are acknowledging that borders exist in the first place, aren’t we already classifying The Familiar as some sort of outlier? We are looking at it as it is related to those borders. We are seeing it in terms of what it is not, rather than what it is.

        I regret my use of the word “classification” — I agree, atodd102015, we shouldn’t be attempting to do that.

      • atodd102015 says :

        I like that. Seeing it as a sort of negative space, shaped partly by the way it rejects the stable categories that exist around it.

      • chelseamaki says :

        Exactly. It exists its own type of thing and that deserves to be embraced.

        I feel like this is an appropriate time for an internet high-five.

      • atodd102015 says :

        Absolutely it is.

  2. benjaminbigelow says :

    chelseamaki, I’m glad you mentioned graphic novels and comic books. I think, at least in the aspect of the “signiconic,” TF can be held in some light to their standards. This requires an acknowledgement of those borders, and that’s not a bad thing. In Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, he talks about how it is those same borders, the frame of the panel within the frame of the page itself, are where a great deal of the story happen. The “negative space” atodd102015 speaks of, I feel. In other words, the novel defines itself for what it is by giving itself that surrounding void.

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