In Fall of 2019 I took a class at the University of Maryland from Professor Tita Chico entitled “The Postmodern Enlightenment.” In this class we read and compared contemporary works and 18th-century works. As a companion to the Yorgos Lanthimos movie The Favourite, we were assigned to read The Secret History of Queen Zarah of the Zarazians, Being a Looking-Glass for —– ——– in The Kingdom of Albigion by (probably) Mary Delariviere Manley. This satirical roman a clef is an attack on Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough leveled by a woman no less ambitious than Churchill was.
The copy we were given to read was a scan of the original text, bearing the original printing conventions of the time—catchwords, signature marks and so on. This was the first time I had done an extended reading of an 18th-century text in something like its original form, and I enjoyed the little persistent tug of difficulty in “translating” the words on the page into the printed English I was used to. This difficulty seemed particularly apropos in a book itself written in a kind of code. Vague ideas about the nature of history, the impossibility of translation, the social suppression of female ambition, the desire to be understood and its twin, the desire to remain mysterious, swirled around in my head until they found a resting-place in the works of one of my favorite writers, the poet Susan Howe.
The major subjects of Howe’s work are history, language (both written and spoken), and visual representation. Over the course of 20 books, Howe makes use of primary source documents and historical accounts, most often from the 16th to 19th centuries, to reflect on the role language plays in making history, the role history plays in making language, and the role that visual art plays in organizing and transcending both.
Howe’s books break and remake language in surprising and wonderful ways, hovering on the edge between illegibility and intelligibility. On the left is an example from her poem “Thorow,” from my favorite of her collections, Singularities.
I decided, for my own amusement, to try and use the text of Queen Zarah to do something similar. The multiple layers of code in the text, the way that language over time fails to disclose itself completely while also failing to hide its meaning, the symmetries and differences of the looking-glass, made me think that Queen Zarah would be a fun book to work with as the basis of a work of found poetry. I was assisted in this project by the existence of an annotated text of the book at http://www.pierre-marteau.com/editions/1705-queen-zarah.html, which allowed me to search for particular words, phrases, and concepts.
In the end I produced something like a dozen images before I was pulled away by the responsibilities of the end of the semester. Here are two of them:
As you can see, these images were intended to be viewed together, “mirroring” each other over the gap of the gutter. This is a dynamic I returned to in Pandemic Transmission.
Once the semester was over, I found that I had lost whatever spark had enabled me to make the original images. Still, I wanted to make some record of them, so I decided to make them into a book and print it out using the Microsoft Publisher software that had been dormant on my computer for years. This was when I realized that because I had not thought about the proportions of the images, it would be difficult to print them out on a scale that would be easy to make a book out of from a 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper. Even at folio size, they weren’t working the way I wanted. I decided that if I was ever going to do something like that again, I would make the images 4.25 x 5.5 so that they would be in quarto size to begin with.
Another inspiration that the Postmodern Enlightenment introduced me to was UMD’s BookLab, where we worked to create an 18th century-style broadside reflecting the themes and issues brought up by our class. Standing in BookLab, surrounded by some of the most peculiar books I had ever seen, watching Professor Matt Kirschenbaum ink the type on a demonstration broadside, I knew this was my kind of place. When I saw that Professor Kirschenbaum would be teaching a class on “How to Do Things With Books” in the following semester, I eagerly signed up. (Ed. note: You can also see the syllabus for this class on In the Classroom.)
It was a great class. We talked about the history and anatomy of the book, we made paper, we learned how to use a composing stick and set type. And then, before we could learn about binding and 3-D printing, before, most importantly, we could begin our final projects in the Book Arts, COVID-19 happened, the campus shut down, and all of our lessons went online.
On March 14, right when it happened, Dylan Lewis, one of my classmates in the BookLab class, posted on Facebook that “if anyone is doing a quarantine bookclub, I (un-ironically) recommend Daniel Defoe’s *A Journal of the Plague Year*. Might be easier to get your head around right now!”
I am not a big Facebook person, but this hit me at the right time. A Google search brought me to a digitized copy of a book containing both Defoe’s work and another work, about a plague that had hit Marseilles in 1720. But first, for whatever weird reason, it brought me to a different Defoe book, A Compleat System of Magick, or the History of the Black-Art. The digitized copy I found had a frontispiece that captured my attention; something about this scholar in his study, surrounded by the emblems of knowledge and power, deeply involved in the complexities of the universe while the Devil watches from behind a door, spoke to a moment in which all of our learning was unable to stop the progress of a dire threat, undermined by the same old human weaknesses that have bedeviled us for thousands of years.
I began reading A Journal of the Plague Year. As I read I was struck by how the 1665 plague and the 1666 Great Fire of London were persistently connected as one ongoing trauma, “the Plague spread itself with an irresistible Fury;” writes Defoe, “so that as the Fire, the succeeding Year, spread itself, and burnt with such Violence, that the Citizens in despair, gave over their Endeavours to extinguish it, so in the Plague, it came at last to such Violence, that the People sat still looking at one another, and seem’d quite abandon’d to Despair.” This sense of history as transmitted by contagion and conflagration, of a destruction that takes different shapes but never stops moving, seemed powerfully contemporary.
Other elements also felt immediate. Defoe talks about how going shopping for supplies is the most stressful act in a plague. He details the belated and sometimes draconian government response. He portrays people who would not stay in their homes and people driven to conspiracy and self-destruction by unscrupulous quack doctors and con men. He describes the sacrifices of doctors and nurses and the struggles to find workers to do essential jobs, most especially driving the dead-carts.
I began to make images. But unlike with Queen Zarah, now I did not just want to draw on the text, but on a full range of expressive possibilities; not just on one thing we might find in a book, but on everything we might find there. I began looking through the digital archives of Gale Eighteenth Century Collections Online for more resources about the Plague. Eventually my search widened. I read medical textbooks, natural science, religion, travelogues, art criticism, fiction (Aesop’s Fables, The Decameron). Defoe’s world came back into focus, as it had been in focus when I did my reading for The Postmodern Enlightenment—the increasingly pointed Orientalism of an Empire rapidly expanding, the profound ignorance and normalization of slavery in its many forms, the miracles of science, of scale (astronomy, microscopy), of printing in its full flourish as the central communications technology of a society in search of knowledge. In the end I read and saw much more than actually made it into my images.
This took up time I should have been spending on other things. I found myself sneaking away from chores to dive into the archives again, or to sit and fiddle with words and pictures until I found a way to break them and make them at the same time. I would sit down at my computer for just fifteen minutes and five hours later, I still wouldn’t be done. In the early days of stay-at-home orders, it was, more than anything, how I kept myself on an even keel. And as I did this, I found myself encountering challenges and considerations which, more and more, the readings we had done, and were doing, in BookLab seemed to address. I realized I had been working on my final project for weeks.
“You’re certainly proud of your little wooden cup,” Fergesson observed. “I sure as hell am,” Dawes agreed, as he placed the cup in the metal box beside the Steuben glassware. “You’ll understand that, too, one of these days. It’ll take awhile, but you’ll get it.” (from Pay for the Printer, by Philip K. Dick)
One of the profoundest lessons of BookLab for me was the instability of print. This is an idea which I first encountered when we read a chapter from Adrian Johns’ The Nature of the Book, and which many of our subsequent readings confirmed and elaborated upon. This lesson was what enabled me to produce Pandemic Transmission.
The supposed permanence of print had always induced a kind of paralysis for me—you have to get it exactly right, in every particular, before you go to press, because once it’s in the book, it’s there forever.
The reality of print, of course, is that you make do. Sheets have to be tipped in, errata issued. William Blake’s mistakes were bound into his books just as surely as his triumphs. You try to get it right, but in the end, what you do is get it down. That was the attitude I brought to these pages, and I hope it has served them, and the reader, well.
The considerations I had while making Pandemic Transmission were as follows:
- Although I had access to image manipulation software with many features, I would only use those features (such as cutting and pasting) which were consistent with what could be done in an actual analog collage.
- I would only use sources from the 17th or 18th century (in the end, almost every source was from the 18th century).
- I could use any part of a digitized file, including the book cover or marginalia, digital artifacts or mistakes of transmission (such as a thumb on the page).
- Images would be 4.25 x 5.5 inches, or 8.5 x 5.5 for a two-page spread.
- Text and images from A History of the Great Plague in London, in the Year 1665. To which is added, a Journal of the Plague at Marseilles, in the Year 1720, and A Compleat System of Magick: Or, the History of the Black-Art, by Daniel Defoe, taken from digital copies provided by archive.org. (Thanks to Dylan Lewis for the inspiration).
- All other text and images taken from digital copies provided by Gale Eighteenth Century Collections Online.
- Images composed in GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program), version 2.8.22.
- Additional text, Book Antiqua (Usually bold, italic).
- Layout in Microsoft Publisher for Office 365.
- Printed by an HP OfficeJet Pro 6968 All-In One (AKA “The Plague”), Firmware Version MCP2CN2006BR.
- Printed on Printworks Matte Photo Paper for Inkjet Printers, 6.5 mil (Interior) and Epson Premium Matte Presentation Paper, 9.8 mil (Cover).
- Hand bound according to instructions from Sea Lemon YouTube videos (Thanks to Mal Haselberger for the recommendation).