This is not a review of Shattering the Muses, a strange hybrid “novel” by Rainer J. Hanshe and Federico Gori

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Rainer J. Hanshe’s new book Shattering the Muses is comprised of citations, short histories, poems, complaints and lamentations, anecdotes, essays, etchings, manipulated photographs, photographs of old documents, ink and enamel drawings, coal and ash pictures, and other media. His co-conspirator on the project is Federico Gori who provides original art for Shattering the Muses. Here are two of nine depictions by Gori of muses that open (in a sense) the narrative:

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The books is ten inches tall, seven inches wide, and one inch thick. It contains 370 pages, many of them illustrated, several blank, and five that are completely black. There are at least four fonts (and more languages than that, although the book is primarily in English).

Have I lingered over form too long here? It’s difficult to describe the content of Shattering the Muses (which often foregrounds the “narrative’s” form).

Or maybe description isn’t so difficult—perhaps we can rely on the book to name its own central problem. The question that threads through Shattering the Muses is “Beware the Book?”

Let’s look at a few examples:

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Above, we read an account—with its own embedded quotation—of The First Emperor of Qin’s ordering, two hundred years or so before the birth of Christ, a grand burning of a great many books. The account ends with the question: “Beware the book?”

(Some historians remark that Quin Shi Huang caused to be buried alive 460 Confucian scholars).

On the opposing/facing page, a 1493 German woodcut depicts Jews being buried and burned alive, scapegoats for the Black Death plague. The woodcut provides an answer to the question: “Beware the book?”: No, beware the burners. The space between the two pages is a gap for the reader to crossPut the pieces together.

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Indeed, it is the reader’s task (task is not quite the right word) to put the pieces of Shattering together. Take the pages above, for example. A passage from Areopagitica, Milton’s defense of free speech, contends that books are “not absolutely dead things,” but rather extractions of the soul’s intellect. He compares them to “those fabulous dragon’s teeth” that Cadmus scattered by Athena’s command. Milton warns that “he who destroys a good book kills reason itself, kills the image of Life.”

The next page reproduces Johan Liss’s painting Apollo and Marsyas (c. 1627). The satyr Marsyas found and mastered the first aulos, an double-reed wind instrument cast away by Athena. (She didn’t like the shape her invention brought to her virgin cheeks). Marsyas challenged Apollo to an aulos contest and lost, natch. (Apollo’s daughters the Muses were the judges). Marsyas was subsequently flayed alive, his hide nailed to a tree. Victim for art’s sake.

(The first page of Shattering the Muses is a quote from Ovid’s Fasti. The lines describe Athena discarding her aulos: “Art is not worth this to me,” she says, seeing her reflected face deformed in the river as she produces the “sublime” music).

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One more set of two pages, then. (It’s easier to show the book than to properly describe it in words. This is not a review). Above: Tadeusz Różewicz was a Polish poet who fought in the resistance movement against the Nazi occupation. He survived the war. His brother Janusz, also a poet, did not. He was executed by the Gestapo in 1944.

The facing page is a photograph of a scrap of one of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri  manuscripts (specifically, P.Oxy. 67.4633). This scrap contains commentary on Homer’s Iliad, but is mostly famous because someone used it to wipe their ass. (A literary critic?)

However, Shattering the Muses is not entirely composed of loosely arranged but discontinuous fragments. Several narratives strand through the book. The most straightforward of these is the story of Renato Naso, who is the closest thing to a main character we’ll find here. When we’re introduced to him, we’re told that he’s “unknowingly putting his life in suspension…living in an eternal between.” He’s a hero (?) ripe for “rupture, fracture, and shattering.” (Perhaps if we take Shattering the Muses as a “novel” we could imagine that the events within take place in Naso’s stretched consciousness—a more secure place for such horrors than, uh, historical reality). When we first meet him, he’s leaving New York for Berlin, forced to abandon most of his books and store them in his brother’s garage. His brother’s house and garage are flooded by Hurricane Sandy, but his library miraculously survives. And yet the historical accounts of book burnings (and human burnings) cataloged in Shattering the Music attest that no library is ever safe. As Milton suggests, libricide and homicide are intertwined.

Hence, other background “characters” emerge more prominently than others in Shattering the Muses: Hitler, Mussolini, the Gestapo. The specter of the Nazis and the Holocaust weigh heavily here, heavier than the (many) other libriciders documented. Against this evil Hanshe gives us a resistance—a wonderful chapter lingers on Samuel Beckett, who’s escaped Occupied Paris to hide in the small village of Roussillon. There, “separated from his library…literary freedom erupts” for Beckett. Absence is a generative power.

Other figures resist through art, even if they perish in the horror, like Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti, murdered by the Nazis near Győr and tossed into a mass grave. In a poetic turn, Hanshe notes “it is a daring Marsyas that he becomes, risking his flesh doubly before a merciless & savage Apollo, for he will not cast his aulos to the turf of the riverbank.” Deft touches like these link this “novel’s” motifs of beauty and destruction, art and murder.

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One Day I’m Going to Grow Wings #2, 2016, Federico Gori

A narrative forms too from more oblique strategies—a plague of mutating billboards, for instance, or spiderwebs of poetry. Handbills, demands, stray bits of philosophy. But maybe I’m back where I started—go all the way back to the title here: This is not a review of Shattering the Muses. I can’t properly parse it, really. It’s overwhelming—linguistically, philosophically, typographically, aesthetically. Intellectually is a word to use here. Hell. It’s a lot to digest all at once. Let me admit that I’m more interested in picking at it slowly. Hanshe’s put a lot of material on the table. It’s a rich meal.

Who is Shattering the Muses for? I hope that I’ve shared enough snippets to give you a sense of what (might be) happening here. I enjoyed it, and enjoy it more in the sense of a text to return to. At the same time, this book is clearly Not For Everyone. Shattering the Muses is an encyclopedic poem, a Choose Your Own Adventure story of aesthetic horror and loss. It’s not likely to cohere for you quickly and neatly, but it’s a weird joy to think (and feel) through.

Last word goes to the Text:

Beware the Book?

Beware the Purifiers!

Beware Libricide.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Book Burning

In his strange story “Earth’s Holocaust,” Nathaniel Hawthorne describes how “this wide world had become so overburdened with an accumulation of worn-out trumpery, that the inhabitants determined to rid themselves of it by a general bonfire.” What ensues is a horrific satire that seems more relevant than ever; the people burn liquor, money, guns, laws, and other sundry items before eventually turning on books—

The truth was, that the human race had now reached a stage of progress so far beyond what the wisest and wittiest men of former ages had ever dreamed of, that it would have been a manifest absurdity to allow the earth to be any longer encumbered with their poor achievements in the literary line. Accordingly a thorough and searching investigation had swept the booksellers’ shops, hawkers’ stands, public and private libraries, and even the little book-shelf by the country fireside, and had brought the world’s entire mass of printed paper, bound or in sheets, to swell the already mountain bulk of our illustrious bonfire. Thick, heavy folios, containing the labors of lexicographers, commentators, and encyclopedists, were flung in, and, falling among the embers with a leaden thump, smouldered away to ashes like rotten wood. The small, richly gilt French tomes of the last age, with the hundred volumes of Voltaire among them, went off in a brilliant shower of sparkles and little jets of flame; while the current literature of the same nation burned red and blue, and threw an infernal light over the visages of the spectators, converting them all to the aspect of party-colored fiends. A collection of German stories emitted a scent of brimstone. The English standard authors made excellent fuel, generally exhibiting the properties of sound oak logs. Milton’s works, in particular, sent up a powerful blaze, gradually reddening into a coal, which promised to endure longer than almost any other material of the pile. From Shakespeare there gushed a flame of such marvellous splendor that men shaded their eyes as against the sun’s meridian glory; nor even when the works of his own elucidators were flung upon him did he cease to flash forth a dazzling radiance from beneath the ponderous heap. It is my belief that he is still blazing as fervidly as ever.

Gainesville Pastor Backs Down on Burning Qu’ran

USA Today and other sources report that Terry Jones will cancel his September 11th book burning, claiming that he reached an agreement to have the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” moved to another location. This all seems kind of nebulous.

Gainesville Church Plans Book Burning

I called the Dove World Outreach Center this afternoon to find out some details about their upcoming book burning.

The woman who answered the phone seemed tense but polite, wanting to know what organization I was with. I told her that I just wanted to find out a few simple facts about the book burning. First, I wanted to confirm that the church still plans to burn copies of the Qur’an on September 11th, 2010. In a New York Times article from August 25th, the church’s pastor Terry Jones avowed that the book burning would still take place, despite the Gainesville Fire Department denying them a permit. The woman I spoke to confirmed that the book burning will still take place.

I wanted to know where the Qur’ans that were to be burned were coming from. I asked if they belonged to the church. The woman was genuinely confused at this. “No, we’re a church. We don’t have any Qur’ans.” I clarified my question. “They’ve been donated to the church,” she replied, and wouldn’t elaborate. The conversation was getting a bit tense.

I asked her if people should bring their own Qur’ans to the book burning to burn. This again seemed confusing. “No, the event is closed to the public,” she explained. The police advised the church, for “security reasons” to restrict the book burning to only church members. I asked if this means that I couldn’t attend the burning if I was not a church member. She explained that I would be able to see the burning from the side of the road from behind a fence, but that nonmembers could not attend.

I then asked how the books would be burned. Again, a pause; perhaps confusion. I felt like I was about to get hung-up on. “Just wood, I think, is my understanding,” she said. “No gas?” I asked. “I’m not sure,” she replied. “So, you’ll burn them like, bonfire-style? A pyre? No pit?” A longer pause. “I’m not really sure,” she finally said. “And people can witness that from the road, but not up close?” I asked. “Yes.”

So I’ll admit it: I’m a lousy reporter. I didn’t get that much info. I set out to find out some very basic, concrete information about the logistics of a book burning in 2010. Where do you get the materials? How do you burn them? I suppose my efforts and my aim to be objective obscured, at least for a moment, the fact that there are few things as ignorant and idiotic as a book burning. Any group of yokels could undertake such an operation. It really doesn’t need much practical forethought. You just need some wood (and possibly gasoline). And a Facebook page. And a willingness to engage in a special kind of evil. No wonder my questions were met with terse confusion.

I didn’t aim to compete with the NYT article, which does a pretty good job of painting the scene in Gainesville, FL, interviewing Jones, along with local Muslims, people who live near the church, and local Christian leaders. There seems to be unanimous disgust with the book burning. I lived in  Gainesville for four years while I attended the University of Florida. I still live very close to it. Jones and his organization do not represent the values of the people who live in Gainesville or the people of Florida; nor do they represent American values.

The nineteenth-century German poet Heinrich Heine famously said that, “Where they burn books, they will ultimately also burn people” — and then they did, in twentieth-century Germany. I toyed with the idea of titling this post something like “Ignorant Yokels Plan Book Burning” but that seemed too dismissive, too snarky (even if perhaps true). (Also, Michael Moore has already used the poetic and appropriate title “Fahrenheit 9/11”). I’m not arguing for Jones and his ilk to be mocked (although thinking people will do so). And I wouldn’t demand that outside forces stop the church from performing this evil ritual on their own private property. Rather, I believe we must point to Dove World Outreach Center’s book burning as an example of the worst of human thinking and action, and agree that it exists outside the bounds of our culture and our society. We must recognize that book burning is inherently anti-human.