07 March 2009

More cut-ups: the Little Gidding "Harmonies"

More cut up thoughts on cut ups . . .

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Nicholas Ferrar’s response to the increasing acrimony and division in political and religious life [during the last sixteenth century] was not to join in the fray but to create an alternative that he hoped would stand outside and rise above that discord. (Ransome 22)
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In 1626 – the same year England crowned the controversial King Charles I -- Nicholas Ferrar moved his family from London to Little Gidding, nestled just north of Cambridge. There, as religious wars raged both at home and abroad, Ferrar’s family prayed, lived a strict routine of self-reliance and, what concerns us here, constructed "Harmonies" -- cut up and reassembled religious texts and images.

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Like sewing, weaving and other forms of text/ile production, assembling the "Harmonies" was women's hand-i-work at Little Gidding. The patriarch Nicholas directed his nieces on the form, structure and verses to compile; then the women extracted the relevant sections from the text, laid them out on the table, and recombined them to form a new narrative.

Thus with appropriately-phallic "Knives & Cizers" in hand, these nameless nieces tore into the body of the Bible -- the "Heads" -- to breathe life into a new text. Like strands of DNA splicing in the womb, discrete elements must disassemble themselves before reassembling into a new organism -- a creature paradoxically the same and yet wholly different from its parents.

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As Paul Dyck points out, the source texts for the "Harmonies" often contained marginal commentary, so that "the Little Gidding books literally sunder much of the biblical textual markup ... from the textual apparatus that gives it meaning" (Dyck 2-3). Ensconced in a bedding of commentary, words are woven into an intellectual tradition, acquiring meaning through abstract syntactical relationships in the same way individual threads form an image when woven into a tapestry. Sliced from the page, though, they become material objects, suddenly strange -- all form and no content.

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Although seventeenth-century women were not often given their own pens and bid write, they were at Little Gidding given their own scissors and bid cut, paste. Disallowed from forming their own, they fed off the words of others.

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Biblical harmonies were widely known during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In England, for instance, Thomas Middleton, James Bentley, Hugh Broughton, John Huid, Henry Garthwait, John Lightfoot and William Gould all produced some variant of a "Harmony" that attempted to reconcile the books of the Bible into one coherent narrative, thereby participating in a long tradition of biblical exegesis that extends beyond the scope of the present work.

What is fascinating about the Little Gidding books, then, is not their drive to narrativize (to harmonize) religious teachings, but the cut-and-paste methods they employ.

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Like Ramon Llull’s ars magna -- itself a form of biblical exegesis -- each of the four Gospels in the Little Gidding books is color-coded and labeled with a letter. Similarly, variations in type and interspersed images keep each chunk of text separate from the others.

Thus whereas most other Harmonies homogenize a re-ordered narrative into a singular new printing, the Little Gidding books maintain the unique character of each disparate element, facilitating not only a form o' writing, but a cut-and-paste form of reading. Through visual homogeneity, the Harmony’s user is empowered to combine different texts and images in new ways -- that is, to read against the forward-facing grain of a typical printed book.

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Yet this process does not individualize the reader (as we might imagine) but actually links her to a long tradition of "harmonizing" the Bible through selective reading. Although we, conditioned by the hat tricks of Tristan Tzara and the radical literary experiments of William Burroughs, theorize cut-ups and combinations as a way to "lose the undesired past, to cut [our] way out of an old identity, if not out of identity itself" (Harris 8), the Little Gidding readers used the Harmonies to construct a desired past in the present, connecting their isolated commune to a transhistorical community of readers. To individualize the text was to participate in a shared religious practice, much as spinning words from Harsdorffer's Denckring paradoxically reflects the infinite perfection of the lingua adamica. In fact, this collective form of reading cut-ups was rooted in the routine of the commune. As Stanley Stewart points out, the Harmonies were read aloud three times daily at Little Gidding in a special room called the Concordance Room (Stewart 66).

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The Bolognese naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) collected nature, accruing over 7,000 diverse specimens throughout his life.

Francesca Fontana, Aldrovandi’s uxor dilectissima (as he called her), collected notes. She cut and collated pieces of Aldrovandi’s manuscripts; compiled scraps from his library for his Pandechion Epistemonicon; and upon his death, edited and published his writings (Blair 26-7, Findlin 44-5). By remediating and remixing Aldrovandi’s objects, Fontana rendered his cabinet of curiosities (his thesaurus, his treasure-hoard) as text, then quite literally positioned these scraps within the pages of the world of print.

While Aldrovandi brought the world to Bologna, his wife, wielding scissors, brought his words to the world.

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As much as this arrangement [of the Harmonies] makes possible a reading of one combined account, it also foregrounds the overlap, or the imbrication, of the texts, drawing attention not to monolithic unity, but to harmonic difference; the book suggests a unity that is necessarily expressed exactly through difference. The arrangement suggests distinct kinds of text and thus of reading: a liturgical and immediate story of Christ that invites a receptive response, and a scholarly and mediated story of Christ that exposes the multiple versions that constitute it, and that invites a critical awareness of the relations between the versions. While naming the differences between these kinds of reading is helpful, one must also note how tightly the two relate: receptivity and inquiry are mutually constituting conditions of the devoted reader. (Dyck 70)



(This image of a Little Gidding book was pulled shamelessly from here, which has the full citation.)

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