It was not practical for all the volumes to be heaved into the square to meet their fiery death. Hours later, in the hush of twilight, those that remained were taken to a nearby pasture. Pyres were assembled like eerie follies, ornaments in a madman’s garden. An onlooker crept through the dark to watch out from hedgerows and amongst the branches of trees. As the last bell tolled marking the passing of an ash-strewn hour, this once gargantuan body of knowledge sat reduced to the finest of pale powder. What was known as Henry IIIV’s Dissolution of the Monasteries depleted the priory’s carefully assembled library of 600 tomes, to just three. Only one curious volume was spared the conflagration, absconded with the most stealthy of grasping hands: an old woman hunched over a walking stick.
It is a conundrum, to describe this text. To have called it one volume was a gross misrepresentation, but to call it two is also a deceit. A single-story unfurling across a pair of books. Why this curious text eluded its scorched fate, why it was banished in the first place is not entirely clear as it seemed to be more whimsical, more uncanny than profane. This book has fascinated archivists for its odd contents, certainly, but also for its narrow escape. The very fact it was condemned as deviant is what makes it enthralling: to publicly denounce knowledge is to simultaneously admit its formidable potential.
Neither volume followed the other in chronological order, in fact, read alone neither book made any sense at all. For if one was to inspect them closely they would see that each page corresponded with one from its partner, two halves of the tale unfolding concurrently. The books had been wrapped and stored separately in the library, as if their alliance was diabolical, certainly, they were handled with great unease by the librarian. Even more unusually for their time, the tale was not written in the academic vernacular of Latin or Greek, but in a local dialect. For some languages are sanctioned when others are not, some languages carry with them the might and endorsement of the establishment.
Strange pairings like this seem to echo across the years. In Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff clutching at the limp and pale body of Catherine as he lays her in her grave: a ghostly coupling so troubling it becomes a compulsion that transcends logic, defies all propriety. Theirs is a union that from its conception curses one another and all that surrounds them. Heathcliff sobs: ‘Do not leave me in this abyss where I cannot find you’. Or the coupling of Oberon and Titania in A Midsummers Night’s Dream, embarking on games with a romantic logic inscrutable to bystanders. Cryptic dalliances in a forest that sits outside of time: floodlit full moon in one scene, plunged into the gloom of a waning moon the next. The climax of their mad tryst culminating with Titania’s slumbering body lain in the arms of the actor Bottom, made a fool with his donkey’s head.
Lovers haunt the periphery. Perhaps banishment is considered such a catastrophic punishment because to be expelled from the centre towards the margins is unbearable. The institution is the most culpable of such purges. A hostile body. The human body is made spongy in places, brittle in others within the immense, gaping corpus of administration. We are not cradled: letters of the law, the state, the institution are not home for us. We hold one another inside this treacherous place. The sharp edge of the serif of an A rubs the shoulder raw, the sleek margin of a hyphen punctures the womb. The porous body of a passage of prose. The tongue of a scrawled sentence slick and darting, disconcerting. The kind of contact bureaucratic institutions enact is ostensibly gentle or benign, but it carries with it an inherent ferocity. We know what it is that we do to one another. When our bodies collide in conflict it can be a calamity, but when words intrude on bodies, overpowering them, incapacitating them, it can be a most violent trespass.
Katie Paine is a Naarm-based artist and writer whose practice investigates systems of meaning-making, specifically the role that language and images play in constructing narrative. She has exhibited at SEVENTH Gallery, Kings ARI, c3 Contemporary Art Space, La Trobe Art Institute, Daine Singer, Irene Rose and ACMI (Channels Festival). She has written for Art + Australia, Lifted Brow, Next Wave Festival, Un Projects and Art Almanac and for a variety of art galleries. She is currently a Master of Fine Art Candidate at the Victorian College of the Arts.
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