Ruins, Prints along the Seine (2011.4.1[Fri.])


In July 2010, I was re-reading a book of essays by Hiroshi Aramata while on my way to the International Congress of Vertebrate Morphology in Uruguay, a conference almost made for the likes of me, and I discovered that Aramata traces his interest in natural history back to the volume on the fishes in Cuvier's Règne animal (Le Règne animal distribué d'après son organisation, pour servir de base à l'histoire naturelle des animaux et d'introduction à l'anatomie comparée, Tome VIII). This is the book that old woman selling antiquarian books and prints along the Parisian riverside praised as the loveliest in the world. Aramata writes that he was able to pick up a copy in a used bookseller in the Hongo neighborhood of Tokyo for just 6000 yen! Unbelievable, in fact, almost unforgiveable. Aramata is a tropical fish fancier but that's not the sole reason for his interest in this book; as the finest of the many fine volumes in Cuvier's atlas of the animals this is a work not only fish lovers can enjoy. I have never seen an actual copy, but in Aramata’s "Age of natural history" *1 and "Great natural history atlases of the world," *2 and the works of many other authors as well, I have developed at least some sense of it. For now, though, I will have to satisfy myself with the copy of his volume on crustaceans in my home, and extrapolate its glories from there.

    His names for this work is the "book that man should not have made," in roundabout praise of its perfection, and the incomprehensibility that hundreds of copies of this creation should be printed for sale as books. I have felt the same myself. There are plates of inestimable quality, clearly the work of masters, which, despite being intended for mass production, show not the slightest compromise in their making. Not a trace of the cockeyed overlays that plagued color pates of the day. Such creations could proudly stand alone as one-of-a-kind works of art, but there they are in their multitudes. Not copies, exactly, but available for purchase in book form. It is this incongruity that Aramata protests.

    I share his sentiment. What if a giant like Rembrandt or Goya had been trapped in the basements of a print shop in some metropolis of 19th century Europe, forced day after day to reproduce the same image at precisely the same dimensions, and once he'd completed a few hundred of these, to have them bound together in books? Perhaps you get a sense of the incredible waste. No matter how lovely the collected reprints may be, the original will always be lovelier still - this is true even of photographs. Art museums remain popular for a reason. But Le Règne Animal in a sense presents the "originals" in bound pages. If you cannot praise the prints as art, at least recognize the cruelty behind their existence. In viewing Cuvier's tomes, one cannot help but be overwhelmed by the sheer luxury of them.

    This is not limited to Le Règne Animal alone - there are any number of natural history color prints from the late 19th century, which while they may not soar to the heights of Cuvier's masterpiece, are wonderful as well. Buffon's Histoire naturelle, generale et particuliere, *3 a copy of which my wife owns, is among this number. While the original plates were monochrome, a subset was colored in a later edition, perhaps in response to the changes in sensibility ushered in by Cuvier's achievement. You cannot open a book like Buffon or Le Règne and browse lightly through the pages - there's an inescapable tension in handling books of this quality, a kind of astonished reverence engendered by the hand colored prints of the fin de siècle.

    erhaps the oft-reviled practice of book breaking is actually the most reasonable disposition of such works. These beautiful images should be treated not as printed plates, but as art in themselves. We have grown so accustomed, so inured ot modern printing techniques that we are at a loss of how to approach a crowning achievement of printing such as Cuvier's Le Règne. If we acknowledge it as a work of art, then it belongs framed on a wall for all to enjoy - there is something wrong about the thought of paging through it, grubby-fingered, as a mere book. Very wrong indeed! When I think of it in this way, nothing seems more natural than to free the individual plates from their bindings.

    Plates used as decoration cannot be kept bound. My wife's view is that no matter how gorgeous a print may be, it is a sin to remove it from its rightful home between the original covers. But this would require me to have two copies of each beloved work – one in pristine condition to be left as-is, and a second less well-preserved one, as a source for prints. That, of course, is impossible. It is not just the fishes, plates from other volumes of Cuvier's atlas are rare as well. The booksellers in Paris are just mad enough to try to sell the books as a complete set. And the images are just beautiful enough to convince people even today that this is how they must buy them.

    My own bibliomania shows no signs of abating. But as I get older, my eyes are weakening and now my liver has grown weary as well, and I have to confront what is left of my life, and ask myself how long will I continue to collect these things I can't bring with me when I go. A friend of about the same age as me recently brought up retirement.... Perhaps it is time for me to be thinking less of what I take with me, and more of what I leave behind. Hmm. Perhaps it is that time, after

*1, *2This material is available in the CDB Library.
*3Buffon's Natural History - A full natural atlas and the roots of evolution (from the popular edition and other select editions of the Histoire Naturelle (Sonnini ed.)), Transl. by Naomi Becquerre. Kosakusha, 1991, is available in the CDB Library.