Thursday, April 8, 2010

Spring Break

Yesterday's blog has been temporarily rusticated for technical reasons while the blogger himself is temporarily at an academic conference in Tennessee, where, I am happy to report, the dogwood and the redbud is everywhere in bloom.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

From Bundren to Bodoni and Back

The French revolutionaries found it easier to overthrow the political arrangements of the Old Regime than to transform by legislative decree the old rhythms of life. From time immemorial they had been linked to the liturgical cycle of Christian experience. To change that would require a new calendar. They made one, and it had the virtues one would expect from a document composed by a committee of the Enlightened: logic, tidiness, coherence. The orderly decade trounced the mystical heptad. There would be twelve months of awesome regularity, each with three weeks of ten days each. The committee chucked out the old names of the months—admittedly a rather incoherent hodge-podge—and replaced them with a rational system of dull meterological and agricultural stereotypes. So you got Winey Month, then Foggy, Frosty, Snowy, Rainy, Windy, etc. As the earth’s revolutions around the sun did not perfectly coincide with the mathematics of the revolutionaries, there were five days left over for secular festivities of an uplifting and politically correct sort. Today would I think be Septidi, the 17 Germinal (Seedy) of the year CCXVIII. Except that fortunately Napoleon made a deal with the Pope about the year XII; and they decided to return to the Christian calendar, which had the advantage of relating not merely to the seasons of the year but to the seasons of human life, and to spiritual and mythic as well as meteorological and agrarian experience.

Last week, Holy Week, for those who enter it imaginatively a kind of calendrical roller-coaster, culminating this year in one of the most beautiful Easter Sundays in my memory, has put me to thinking about times and seasons and cycles. So has another circumstance, which will eventually become the subject of this blog. That might be defined as the special contours of love among family members. To be a little more specific, the subject will be our parental joy at the approaching marriage of our younger son Luke and his wonderful fiancée Melanie.

Luke and Melanie

Half a dozen extraordinary books read in my teen years were enough to encourage me to contemplate a life devoted to the study of literature. Among the American writers I knew, I thought Faulkner was the greatest. He was then still alive, still writing, still living just across the river from my own state.

His first book to hook me was As I Lay Dying. I didn’t exactly understand it. I felt better much later, after years of professordom, when I came to realize that nobody else exactly understands it either. But I knew it was great. As I Lay Dying is about a seriously Faulknerian outfit called the Bundrens. The Bundren who lies dying is Addie, the mother. Insofar as there is a plot, it is the story of her death and the grotesque and heroic effort of her children to cart her body by wagon to a town named Jefferson for burial. The oldest child, a man named Cash, is an expert carpenter. The reader hears him before meeting him. The first sound recorded on the first page is the rasp of sawing, then the “Chuck. Chuck. Chuck. of the adze.” Cash is constructing a coffin for his dying mother, as she listens from her sickbed.

There are times, perhaps, when true depth of love can be best expressed through the medium of careful craftsmanship. Cash Bundren had a Good Friday task. Thank God there are also Easter ones. For Luke and Melanie had asked me to print their wedding invitations—a task I completed yesterday.

As they lay drying...

I have been an amateur letterpress printer for forty years, though precious little has come off the presses recently. Luke and I have had a few joint printing projects in our time, but I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to find the most important printing I had ever done for him. It took a fair amount of rummaging around in half-forgotten files of child-memorabilia. One advantage of such rummaging, perhaps the only advantage, is that one uncovers stuff one didn’t know existed. In this instance, I uncovered quite a cache of Luke’s artwork. He was, and is, a talented artist, as is obvious in this miraculously preserved piece from his affreuse period. The exact date is uncertain, but most art historians place it in the second term of the Reagan presidency.

C.L.O. Fleming (1979- ) untitled Mother's Day Card--affreuse period

At last I did find what I was looking for—to wit, the announcement I had printed in 1979, to share our parental joy with friends and relations throughout the world. Joan and I wanted to name him Christopher—hence the technicality of the birth certificate and the iconography of the birth announcement—but we had already been told in no uncertain terms by his sister that she had no intention of honoring any “sissy” names like Christopher. (You know, as in Columbus, Marlowe, and other sissies of that ilk.)

Does he look like a "sissy" to you?...

I had set the birth announcement in the beautiful, large, fresh fourteen-point Bodoni I had acquired for the printing of the Latin texts in Two Poems Attributed to Joachim of Fiore. I clearly remember the look and feel of the pristine types in their cases. I can also remember, though barely, that thirty years ago I could without difficulty or magnifying glass set the six-point type of the psalm text! That old Bodoni type, considerably reduced by service in several book runs, and even at the cost of tolerating a dinged letter or two, I simply had to use for the wedding invitations!

There are a few passages in the Bible that might be called “Bible Passages for People Who Haven't Actually Read the Bible.” Perhaps the most famous of these is the third chapter of Ecclesiastes: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die, a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted…a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…a time to love…” Well, this is indeed the time for love. I love you. That's why I gave you this.

I placed the finished text of the invitation cards out on the dining table to dry for a few moments—it doesn’t take long—and returned to the press to work on the much easier task of the envelopes. With each revolution the old Chandler and Price makes a distinctive, rhythmic sound. I would be hard pressed to give it graphic representation—but “Chuck…chuck…chuck” is at least in the ballpark. So as the sheets lay drying, I thought of As I Lay Dying, and of times and seasons and cycles, and of the great wonder and mystery of it all.