Noli metangere, says the title page of the Compendium of Demonology and Magic: “Do not touch me.” For the book’s target audience, one suspects, this was more enticement than warning. Written in Latin (its full title is Compendium rarissimum totius Artis Magicae sistematisatae per celeberrimos Artis hujus Magistros) and German, the book purports to come from the year 1057. In fact it’s been dated as more than 700 years younger, though to most 21st-century beholders a book from around 1775 carries enough historical weight to be intriguing — especially if, as the Public Domain Review puts it, it depicts “a varied bestiary of grotesque demonic creatures.”
The specimens catalogued in the Compendium of Demonology and Magic are “up to all sorts of appropriately demonic activities, such as chewing down on severed legs, spitting fire and snakes from genitalia, and parading around decapitated heads on sticks.”
Grotesquely combining features of man and beast, these hideous chimeras are rendered in “more than thirty exquisite watercolors” that still look vivid today. In fact, with their punkish costumes, insouciant expressions, and often indecently exposed nether regions, these demons look ready and willing to cause a scandal even in our jaded time.
Nearly two and a half centuries ago, we might fairly assume, a greater proportion of the public believed in the existence of demons — if not these specific monstrosities, then at least the concept of the demonic in general. But we’re surely lying to ourselves if we believed that nobody in the 16th century had a sense of humor about it. Even the work of this book’s unknown illustrator evidences, beyond formidable artistic skill and wild imagination, a certain comedic instinct, serious business though demonic intentions toward humanity may be.
With its less humorous content including execution scenes and instructions for the procedures of witchcraft from divination to necromancy, the Compendium of Demonology and Magic belongs to a deeper tradition of books that elaborately catalog and depict the varieties of supernatural evil. (A much older example is the Codex Gigas, previously featured here on Open Culture, a “Devil’s Bible” that also happens to be the largest medieval manuscript in the word.)
If you are a frequent reader of Open Culture, or the many blogs we tend to read — especially those concerned with the rare, unusual, and obscure — it’s likely you’ve encountered some of the books in TheMadman’s Library, Edward Brooke-Hitching’s fantastic new volume of literary oddities. If not, you’re probably familiar with a few of the categories he identifies under his subtitle, “The Strangest Books, Manuscripts and Other Literary Curiosities from History.” These include “Books Made of Flesh and Blood,” such as a Qur’an written in 50 pints of Saddam Hussein’s blood. If such artifacts don’t qualify as “literary curiosities,” it’s hard to know what does.
Brooke-Hitching grants the designation “curiosity” is subjective, and culturally determined, “but after nearly a decade of searching through catalogues of libraries, auction houses and antiquarian book dealers around the world,” he writes in his introduction,” works of undeniable peculiarity leapt out.”
Or as he tells Smithsonian in an interview, “the more books you see, the more your radar is sensitive to something that pings with its strangeness.” He pulls out the first book in his bag as an example: a self-published collection of poetry by Charlie Sheen.
Perhaps few other people have laid eyes on such an enormous collection of oddball bibliographic treasures. These are not only books made of strange — and even deadly — materials; they are also books whose contents or histories are just plain weird.
The chapter ‘Curious Collections’… features similar projects of obsessive dedication, from medieval manuscripts of fantastic beasts, and guides to criminal slang of Georgian London (with plenty of lascivious highlights provided), to Captain Cook’s secret ‘atlas of cloth’ and the unexpectedly homicidal story of the origin of the Oxford English dictionary. Elsewhere, ‘Literary Hoaxes’ presents the best of the ancient tradition of deceptive writing–lies in book form–whether it be for satire, self promotion or as an instrument of revenge.
Of the latter, Brooke-Hitching cites Jonathan Swift’s series of pamphlets written under a pseudonym, “a successful campaign to convince all of London of the premature death of a charlatan prophet he despised.” In a chapter titled ‘Works of the Supernatural,’ Brooke-Hitching gives us the example of W.B. Yeats’ wife George, who transcribed “4000 pages of spiritual dictation in the first three years of their marriage.” Her automatic writing was published in a compilation called A Vision in 1925, but “through seven editions it was only Yeats’ name” on the title page.
There are ‘Books that aren’t Books,’ such as a skull inscribed with a prayer and a collection of autobiographical fragments embroidered on the linen jacket of an incarcerated seamstress; there are ‘Cryptic Books” like the Voynich Manuscript and poetry written in code. Part literary detective story, part bibliographic odyssey through time, part literary curiosity all its own (though more of the coffee-table variety), The Madman’s Library is a feast for bibliophiles and oddballs of all kinds. Pick up a copy here and see several more of exceptionally curious books over at Smithsonian.
I always think tattoos should communicate. If you see tattoos that don’t communicate, they’re worthless. —Henk Schiffmacher, tattoo artist
Tattooing is an ancient art whose grip on the American mainstream, and that of other Western cultures, is a comparatively recent development.
Long before he took up—or went under—a tattoo needle, legendary tattoo artist and self-described “very odd duck type of guy,” Henk Schiffmacher was a fledgling photographer and accidental collector of tattoo lore.
Inspired by the immersive approaches of Diane Arbus and journalist Hunter S. Thompson, Schiffmacher, aka Hanky Panky, attended tattoo conventions, seeking out any subculture where inked skin might reveal itself in the early 70s.
As he shared with fellow tattooer Eric Perfect in a characteristically rollicking, profane interview, his instincts became honed to the point where he “could smell” a tattoo concealed beneath clothing:
The kind of tattoos you used to see in those days, you do not see anymore, that stuff made in jail, in the German jails, like, you’d like see a guy who’d tattooed himself as far as his right hand could reach and the whole right (side) would be empty…I always loved that stuff which was never meant to be art which is straight from the heart.
When tattoo artists would write to him, requesting prints of his photos, he would save the letters, telling Hero’s Eric Goodfellow:
I would get stuff from all over the world. The whole envelope would be decorated, and the letter as well. I have letters from the Leu Family and they’re complete pieces of art, they’re hand painted with all kinds of illustrations. Also people from jail would write letters, and they would take time to write in between the lines in a different colour. So very, very unique letters.
Schiffmacher (now the author of the new Taschen book, TATTOO. 1730s-1970s) realized that tattoos must be documented and preserved by someone with an open mind and vested interest, before they accompanied their recipients to the grave. Many families were ashamed of their loved ones’ interest in skin art, and apt to destroy any evidence of it.
On the other end of the spectrum is a portion of a 19th-century whaler’s arm, permanently emblazoned with Jesus and sweetheart, preserved in formaldehyde-filled jar. Schiffmacher acquired that, too, along with vintage tools, business cards, pages and pages of flash art, and some truly hair raising DIY ink recipes for those jailhouse stick and pokes. (He discusses the whaler’s tattoos in a 2014 TED Talk, below).
His collection also expanded to his own skin, his first canvas as a tattoo artist and proof of his dedication to a community that sees its share of tourists.
Schiffmacher’s command of global tattoo significance and history informs his preference for communicative tattoos, as opposed to obscure ice breakers requiring explanation.
When he first started conceiving of himself as an illustrated man, he imagined the delight any potential grandchildren would take in this graphic representation of his life’s adventures—“like Pippi Longstocking’s father.”
It’s almost impossible not to wonder how reclusive artists of the past — like anonymous street photographer and Chicago nanny Vivian Maier — would fare in the age of Tumblr and Instagram. Would Maier have become internet famous? Would she have posted any of her photographs? The little we know about her makes it hard to answer the question. Maier lived a life of abstemious self-negation. “She never exhibited her work,” Alex Kotlowitz writes at Mother Jones, “she didn’t share her photos with anyone, except some of the children in her care.”
And yet, Maier was known to enjoy conversations about film and theater with knowledgeable people. One suspects that if she had been able to stay in touch with like minds, she might have been encouraged by a supportive community she couldn’t find anywhere else. We might imagine her, for example, submitting a select few photographs to Women Street Photographers, a project that began in 2017 as an Instagram account and has since “burgeoned into a website, artist residency, series of exhibitions, film series, and now a book published this month by Prestel,” Grace Ebert writes at Colossal.
For women street photographers living and working today, the project offers what founder Gulnara Samoilova says she needed and couldn’t find: “I soon began to realize that with this platform, I could create everything I had always wanted to receive as a photographer: the kinds of support and opportunities that would have helped me grow during those formative and pivotal points on my journey.” The project is international in scope, bringing together the work of 100 women from 31 countries, “a tiny sampling of what’s out there.”
Street photography is both a record of the world and a statement of the artist themselves: it is how they see the world, who they are, what captures their attention, and fascinates them. There’s a wonderful mixture of art and artifact, poetry and testimony that makes street photography so appealing. It’s both documentary and fine art at the same time, yet highly accessible to people outside the photography world.
There are Vivian Maiers around the world driven to document their surroundings, whether anyone ever sees their work or not. Maier made her photographs “for all the right reasons,” says Chicago artist Tony Fitzpatrick. “She made them because to not make them was impossible. She had no choice.” But perhaps she might have chosen to show her work if she had access to platforms like Women Street Photographers. We can be grateful for such outlets now: they offer perspectives that we can find nowhere else. Women Street Photographers will announce the winners of its inaugural virtual exhibition “on or around April 1.”
Haruki Murakami is a novelist, but for some time his name has been no less a global brand than, say, Uniqlo’s. Though both the man and the clothing company happen to have come into existence in Japan in 1949, this comparison goes beyond mere nationality. In their homeland, both Uniqlo and Murakami came into their own in the 1980s, the decade when the former opened its first casual-wear shop and the latter published the name-making A Wild Sheep Chase and the cultural phenomenon that was Norwegian Wood. Having assiduously cultivated markets outside Japan, both have become internationally known in the 21st century: just as Uniqlo now has shops all over the world, Murakami’s books have been translated into at least 50 languages.
With graphics contributed by sources like illustrator and frequent Murakami collaborator Masaru Fujimoto, “the collection showcases the world of his masterpiece novels, his love for music, and of course cats.” The reverse of the Murakami Radio shirt, seen at the top of the post, even features this unambiguous quotation of the man himself: “Books, music, and cats have been my friends from way back.”
More than a few of Murakami’s fans could no doubt say the same. They’ll also delight in the nuances of the words and images on the seven other Murakami shirts Uniqlo has created for sale from March 15th. Many have read Norwegian Wood, but relatively few will notice that Uniqlo’s shirt based on that book comes in the very same red-and-green color scheme as its two-volume Japanese first edition. Far from drawing only on the popularity of such big hits, the collection also pays tribute to Murakami’s lesser-known works: his sophomore effort Pinball, 1973, for instance, which went without a major English translation for 35 years.
Still unpublished outside Asia are most of Murakami’s essays, which he’s been writing on music, food, travel, and a variety of other subjects nearly as long as he’s been a novelist. But this November, Knopf will publish Murakami T: The T-Shirts I Love, a book documenting his impressive collection including T-shirts “from The Beach Boys concert in Honolulu to the shirt that inspired the beloved short story ‘Tony Takitani,'” all “accompanied by short, frank essays that have been translated into English for the first time.” Writing essays or fiction, whatever the language in which they appear, Murakami’s work remains broadly appealing yet distinctively his own, belonging at once everywhere and nowhere in the world — more than a bit, come to think of it, like Uniqlo’s clothing. On March 15, purchase the shirts online here.
Brenda (laughing): Can you imagine a Taoist advertising agency? “Buy this if you feel like it. If it’s right. You may not need it.”
Ursula: There was an old cartoon in The New Yorker with a guy from an advertising agency showing his ad and the boss is saying “I think you need a little more enthusiasm Jones.” And his ad is saying, “Try our product, it really isn’t bad.”
Perhaps no Chinese text has had more lasting influence in the West than the Tao Te Ching, a work so ingrained in our culture by now, it has become a “changeless constant,” writes Maria Popova. “Every generation of admirers has felt, and continues to feel, a prescience in these ancient teachings so astonishing that they appear to have been written for their own time.” It speaks directly to us, we feel, or at least, that’s how we can feel when we find the right translation.
Admirers of the Taoist classic have included John Cage, Franz Kafka, Bruce Lee, Alan Watts, and Leo Tolstoy, all of whom were deeply affected by the millennia-old philosophical poetry attributed to Lao Tzu. That’s some heavy company for the rest of us to keep, maybe. It’s also a list of famous men. Not every reader of the Tao is male or approaches the text as the utterances of a patriarchal sage. One famous reader had the audacity to spend decades on her own, non-gendered, non-hierarchical translation, even though she didn’t read Chinese.
It’s not quite right to call Ursula Le Guin’s Tao Te Ching a translation, so much as an interpretation, or a “rendition,” as she calls it. “I don’t know Chinese,” she said in an interview with Brenda Peterson, “but I drew upon the Paul Carus translation of 1898 which has Chinese characters followed by a transliteration and a translation.” She used the Carus as a “touchstone for comparing other translations,” and started, in her twenties, “working on these poems. Every decade or so I’d do another chapter. Every reader has to start anew with such an ancient text.”
Waley’s translation “is never going to be equaled for what it does,” serving as a “manual for rulers,” Le Guin says. It was also designed as a guide for scholars, in most editions appending around 100 pages of introduction and 40 pages of opening commentary to the main text. Le Guin, by contrast, reduces her editorial presence to footnotes that never overwhelm, and often don’t appear at all (one note just reads “so much for capitalism”), as well as a few pages of endnotes on sources and variants. “I didn’t figure a whole lot of rulers would be reading it,” she said. “On the other hand, people in positions of responsibility, such as mothers, might be.”
Her version represents a lifelong engagement with a text Le Guin took to heart “as a teenage girl” she says, and found throughout her life that “it obviously is a book that speaks to women.” But her rendering of the poems does not substantially alter the substance. Consider the first two stanzas of her version of Chapter 11 (which she titles “The uses of not”) contrasted with Waley’s CHAPTER XI.
We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel; But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the wheel depends. We turn clay to make a vessel; But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the vessel depends.
Thirty spokes meet in the hub. Where the wheel isn’t is where is it’s useful.
Hollowed out, clay makes a pot. Where the pot’s not is where it’s useful.
Le Guin renders the lines as delightfully folksy oppositions with rhyme and repetition. Waley piles up argumentative clauses. “One of the things I love about Lao Tzu is he is so funny,” Le Guin comments in her note,” a quality that doesn’t come through in many other translations. “He’s explaining a profound and difficult truth here, one of those counterintuitive truths that, when the mind can accept them, suddenly double the size of the universe. He goes about it with this deadpan simplicity, talking about pots.”
Such images captivated the earthy anarchist Le Guin. She drew inspiration for the title of her 1971 novel The Lathe of Heaven from Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu, perhaps showing how she reads her own interests into a text, as all translators and interpreters inevitably do. No translation is definitive. The borrowing turned out to be an example of how even respected Chinese language scholars can misread a text and get it wrong. She found the “lathe of heaven” phrase in James Legge’s translation of Chuang Tzu, and later learned on good authority that there were no lathes in China in Chuang Tzu’s time. “Legge was a bit off on that one,” she writes in her notes.
Scholarly density does not make for perfect accuracy or a readable translation. The versions of Legge and several others were “so obscure as to make me feel the book must be beyond Western comprehension,” writes Le Guin. But as the Tao Te Ching announces at the outset: it offers a Way beyond language. In Legge’s first few lines:
The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name.
Here is how Le Guin welcomes readers to the Tao — noting that “a satisfactory translation of this chapter is, I believe, perfectly impossible — in the first poem she titles “Taoing”:
The way you can go isn’t the real way. The name you can say isn’t the real name.
Heaven and earth begin in the unnamed: name’s the mother of the ten thousand things.
So the unwanting soul sees what’s hidden, and the ever-wanting soul sees only what it wants.
Two things, one origin, but different in name, whose identity is mystery. Mystery of all mysteries! The door to the hidden.
There’s been an explosion of rock and roll autobiographies in recent years, with pretty much every music legend (and many others) being invited by some publisher or other to write or dictate their story. What’s the particular appeal of this kind of recounting, what’s the connection between writing and reading these books on the one hand and producing and listening to the actual music on the other? Do we get a roughly equivalent benefit from a biography, documentary, or film depiction of the person’s life?
Your hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt along with guest Laura Davis-Chanin, author of her own music memoir, each picked a book, covering Elvis Costello, Carrie Brownstein, Ozzy Osbourne, and Debbie Harry respectively. Reflecting on these reading experiences we compare the author’s purposes in writing the book, how confessional or drug-addled or twisted the story is, what is emphasized and what’s not, and what resonated in the story beyond the idiosyncratic recounting of that person’s life.
If you like Rage Against the Machine, but don’t like their “political bs,” you haven’t actually listened to Rage Against the Machine, whose entire raison d’être is contained within the name. What is “the Machine”? Let’s hear it from the band themselves. Singer Zack de la Rocha pointed out that the title of their second album, 1996’s Evil Empire, came from “Ronald Reagan’s slander of the Soviet Union in the eighties, which the band feels could just as easily apply to the United States.”
The Machine is capitalism and militarism, what Dwight D. Eisenhower once famously called the “military-industrial complex” but which has folded in other oppressive mechanisms since the coining of that phrase, including the prison-industrial complex and immigration-industrial complex. The Machine is a mega-complex with a lot of moving parts, and the members of RATM have done the work to critically examine them, informing their music and activism with reading and study.
Evil Empire, for example, featured in its liner notes a photo of “a pile of radical books,” “and the group posted a lengthy reading list to complement it on their site,” declares the site Radical Reads. Debates often rage on social media over whether activists should read theory. One answer to the question might be the commitment of RATM, who have steadfastly lived out their convictions over the decades while also, ostensibly, reading Marx, Marcuse, and Fanon.
There are more accessible theorists on the list: fierce essayists like former death row inmate and Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal and Henry David Thoreau, whose Walden and “Civil Disobedience” both appear. The Anarchist Cookbook shows up, but so too does Dr. Suess’ The Lorax, biographies of Miles Davis and Bob Marley, Taschen’s Dali: The Paintings, James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist of a Young Man, and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. This is not a list of strictly “political” books so much as a list of books that open us up to other ways of seeing.
These are also, in many cases, books we do not encounter unless we seek them out. “I certainly didn’t find any of those books at my University High School library,” de la Rocha told MTV in 1996, “Many of those books may give people new insight into some of the fear and some of the pain they might be experiencing as a result of some of the very ugly policies the government is imposing upon us right now.” Doubtless, he would still endorse the sentiment. The workings of the Machine, after all, don’t seem to change much for the people on the bottom when it gets new management at the top.
Read the full list of Evil Empire book recommendations on Good Reads. And as a bonus, hear a Spotify playlist of radical music just above, compiled by RATM guitarist Tom Morello. The 241 song list runs
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