spent a visiting year in my department some time around 1980.
Architecturally and janitorially, my campus is pretty awful. The paradigm of the awfulness is the elevator in my department’s building, which has broken down about once every other week, year in and year out, for every one of the 35 years I’ve ridden it.
But once, just once, the elevator was illumined from within. The source of the brilliance was Mr. Simpson, who walked in, leaned himself against the rear bulkhead, and declared for all within to hear,
“The trouble with Gary Snyder is that one day he decided he was wise.”
In the classical era, Horace ends his Odes with a vaunt: Exegi monumentum aere perennius, “I have built a monument whose bronze is everlasting.” Centuries later, the romantic Ralph Waldo Emerson ends his “Nature” with the same metaphor of construction:
Adam called his house, heaven and earth; Caesar called his house, Rome; you perhaps call yours, a cobler’s trade; a hundred acres of ploughed land; or a scholar’s garret. Yet line by line and point for point, your dominion is as great as theirs, though without fine names. Build, therefore, your own world. As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions.
Sometimes, too, literature and architecture have been erected side by side, in a way that’s explicitly interchangeable. That was the case with the stained glass windows of medieval churches, whose illustrations of sacred literature were called “the books of the poor.” With poetic economy, Milton’s Penseroso calls them “storied windows.” The interchangeability is fully reversible, too: building as book, book as building. Click this example to enlarge it for detail.
What you see here on the title page of the first edition of the King James Bible (1611) is a literature which asks us to live in it as if it were a building. The building is specifically a church: a church whose storied stones have been shaped into a work of literature. Unifying the building’s decorative detail is a single visual metaphor depicting the text as a church portal open to the words calling out to us from within, from just behind this page: a text reading itself out to us as “The Holy Bible, Conteyning the Old Testament, and the New.”
Flanking the door are Moses and Aaron, the two lawgivers of the Old Testament. On their paper page, the two men are to be read as architectural ornaments made of stone, each one in a niche under a bracket which holds up a frieze of the tents and coats of arms of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Above that storied rooftop detail is unwalled heaven, with its two lights, sun and moon, and the source of illumination expressing itself in Hebrew letters as the Name of God. Below that undepictable utterance, the story of the Trinity is incarnated for us to experience with the senses as a pair of picture stories: an image of the Holy Ghost as a dove and an image of the Son as the sacrificial Lamb of God. Around the Lamb sit the Twelve Apostles, each one telling his story of himself with the help of an iconic attribute, and in the corners of the image sit the Four Evangelists, writing. Each of the writers has a story-telling iconic companion, too: Matthew with his angel, Mark with his lion, Luke with his ox, and John with his eagle. And finally, at the bottom, on the stairs, is the Eucharistic image of the pelican, whose story is a legend of a mother who feeds her young with her own blood.
English majors, remember big-talking Laertes in Hamlet referring to himself with characteristic bluster as “the kind life-rendering pelican.” Remember too that Shakespeare is exactly contemporary with this picture guidebook to the architecture of heaven. And one more time: the stairs depicted in the guidebook lead up to a door. The door opens to show us that it is the tenor of a religious metaphor. The vehicle of the metaphor, the image that communicates the tenor to us, is architectural. So yes: it probably does matter that we’re learning about modernist literature this semester inside a building which derives from modernism but gets its own defining metaphors all wrong.
Your corrective to that evil idea is the photograph by Jack Delano at