The Library is on Fire

Wood as Cultural Signifier

The Library is on Fire. These were the code words [during the German occupation of France] for a parachute drop to the Cereste maquis of the French Resistance -- words that acquired a mysterious life when one of the containers exploded and set fire to the forest, alerting the Gestapo to the position of René Char's group. The Frenchmen barely escaped with their lives. And the poet thought the fire was proof of the power of language to shape the world. "I believe in the magic and in the authority of words," he told his superiors in London, insisting the code be changed.

-- Christopher Merrill.[1]

The way in which wood and fire and books and words swap places in this singular event -- a supply drop in the middle of World War II -- indicates the strange [yet everyday] way one thing can become another -- passing from object (wood) into language (code) into substance (fire) again. And there are infinite permutations. Here is another: woods to paper to books to library -- the woods are a library. But conversely, can the library return to its source -- the forest? Can it imitate and become once again the properties from which it came? Under the trees' dense canopy, the living occupants of nests, hives, and holes are not a stable text -- their bodies join in sex, the cells deviate, and bodies collapse into one another, and once again, when an animal kills another; the archived text,[2] beginning and ending in paper, has no means to replicate these behaviors. Hence the library, unlike the forest, only makes record of mutation, copulation, and compost; it cannot also exist as that which it is made of.[3] [4]

Char's evaluation of this event gives primacy to the authority of words: he believes that the object (forest/library) is subject to and responds accordingly to a word, in this case, the verb (burning).[5] (When the verb substituted forest for library, it was as if it had sought a related noun when its original subject could not be located.) But what if this event is read otherwise -- that it is the word that lacks primacy here; that this word primarily serves as temporary shelter for the object at hand. What if we claim that made objects will always tend towards that which they originate -- shucking off their linguistic designation and returning to the material source. And so, the library fuses with the forest.

Perhaps America's dramatic decline in readers of literature or poetry -- or any book for that matter -- signals a more universal impatience with the manner in which language seemingly gets in the way of the authority and magic of the object.[6] Perhaps literacy -- which includes the act of embedding an object in a word and abstracting that substance until it is no longer visually recognizable -- was/will be just a brief bad dream; and so we are eager to eschew words and begin and end with the primacy of the object -- in this case the object is wood.

According to The American Woods (first printed in 1888 with delicate slats of wood inserted within and last printed in 2002, with photographs instead of those sanded splinters) wood starts out as the substance 'from which trees are made' and is not only turned into books but into buckets, lathes, window shutters, matches, baskets, hammer-handles, railroad sleepers, fence posts, fishing rods, threshing-flails, walking sticks, ship's masts, ribs and yards, cricket bats, barrels, sledges, snow shoes, canoes, drinking vessels, salad bowls, fishing net floats, cupboards, levers, mallets, carts, rifle-stocks, ramrods, coffins, and plows, as well as the thresholds of door ways, the hubs of wheels, floorboards, pumps, gunpowder, wooden cylinders, ropes, utensils, pencils, roof shingles, telephone poles, planks, ship's spars, shoe lasts, firewood, threshing machines, guitars, wharf piles, charcoal, joinery, gymnastic apparatus, clogs, broom handles, divining rods.

The tasks of wood seem endless, and as the substance takes form after form, its cumulative force engenders a collective hallucination: it begins to seem that we, as a species, are the embodiment of industriousness, a people of action who make and make and make, rather than a sentient life force that values stillness and solitude (which is what the library requires and what the woods permit). "A dictionary begins when it no longer gives the meaning of words, but their tasks," states Georges Bataille in his one paragraph essay/entry "Formless" from Visions of Excess. But the various tasks performed by the wood eclipse not so much the meaning of the object, as its source. Wood, in its raw and singular state, does not conjure wilderness (remember the lumberyard, envision Home Depot's plank and plywood section). When embodied in a veneer, or say a tool handle, it does not even muster the image of a greenhouse-raised sapling in the mall parking lot section divider. Wood has been transformed from object to task to color, a decorative pattern rendered in plastic or pixels: the wood paneled station wagon, the dark wood (plastic) cafeteria trays, wood-colored hotmail e-mail stationary (circa 1996), and the wood(s) screensaver. What task is this, what definition does it create? And what is to come -- wood cell phone cases, wood eye shadow, wood-colored tights, wood silicone dildo? So, it is not long after a coppice is reduced to timber that its wood is reduced to decorative pattern as well, and our definition, our understanding of wood and woods is reduced as well. The borrowed pattern does not relay the metronome sway of a branch released from a squirrel's weight as it shifts from one branch to another. Nor does it reveal the odor of a lightning struck tree -- sure, there is evidence of its burn but no smell of sweet, dark smolder.

Each striation in a tree's trunk represents one lived year in the life of a tree. Unlike the palm-reader's pseudo-reading of a man's past, drought or flood, blight or fire can be accurately read by analyzing the lines revealed in the stump. But some of these wood lines are also a fiction; hand painted on the surface of a banquet room bar or a manufactured particleboard panel. Which trees are these objects approximating? Sweet Locust, Sassafras, Swamp Hickory, Pigeon Cherry, Old-field Birch, Catalpa, Loblolly Bay, Red Titi, Sour Tupelo, Swamp Privet, Cotton Fan Palm, Screw-Pod Mesquite, Naked Stopper, Green Wattle, Pinon, Digger Pine, Shad-blow, Common Fig, Pig-Nut Hickory, Scarlet Oak, Dwarf Sumac, Witch-Hazel, Double Spruce, Arbor-Vitae, Quaking Asp, Necklace Poplar, Prince-wood, Alligator Juniper, Fetid Buckeye, Gumbo Limbo, Mastic, Bustic, Strongback or some nameless hybrid? These are only 33 of the 350 trees described in The American Woods. By asking which trees these objects are approximating, I'm casting aside Bataille's call for a definition that favors task over meaning. I know what tasks these trees perform for themselves and humans, but what are they? What is a Swamp Privet? How do I recognize the Digger Pine? A woman who grew up in the California foothills told me I would be able to identify a Digger Pine because it appears "boneless." When I drove there I saw swooping, slumped pines on grassy yellow hills. But the Digger Pine remains there because housing developments have not subsumed it and it isn't considered good for much more than a roost for animals to nest and eat. It would be to its detriment -- to be good for anything other than growing in the soil it's rooted in. Its wood pattern is not approximated, delicately painted on any object. The lines remain buried in the trunk until the digger breaks into two, felled by its own age.

Returning to the paragraph that exhaustively lists wood products until the sum total of its pervasive utility is glaringly apparent, I begin to see how this paragraph doubles as a dictionary entry of sorts, one that delineates the materiality of human survival; our dependence on objects; the way in which we rely on wood.[7] It surprises us, the hundreds of instances in which we have morphed wood into things that in no way resemble trees. We are surprised because the slender grain of the wood -- the imprint of the objects former incarnation -- is not always visible in the end product and we forget the relationship. Cardboard, gunpowder, medicine or black dye -- the grain is dissolved in the production process and the origin point is swallowed.[8]

But what do we do with this information-- that the nature of objects can be as abstract and liquid as words? When the primacy of objects -- the authority of things -- is destabilized, what changes in our daily reality? Is there a renewed sense of agency -- that we triumph despite a constant flux -- or is there a deeper dread, that survival is contingent on an ever-shifting utilization of material accident? Seventy odd years ago, when the code became prophetic and the forest burned, was it fear of the body terrorized that made Char want to claim the primacy of words, alone? I imagine that objects -- shrapnel, corpses, shelters, and bodies -- are so psychologically freighted in battle -- that it feels necessary to sublimate one's attachment to these soft vulnerable carapaces -- to deny all objects and laud the word. This way in which Char -- in a kind of projected grief -- created a beautiful and false pillar of abstraction to cling to reminds me of the obverse -- twin and twisting tree houses built of driftwood on the coast of California. A father built the tree houses when his son died at sea. They towered up fragile -- a careening and rickety wood helix -- but they did not protect and could not preserve anything that had been lost, flesh or word. The world still existed beyond the tree house and the coast -- furious and charged, shaking.


[1] René Char. This Smoke That Carried Us: Selected Poems of René Char. Trans. Dubroff, Susanne. Buffalo, New York: White Pine Press, USA, 2004.

[2] The archive, unmediated (that is, without intervention) can begin to mutate/lactate/mutilate with use -- with an exterior impetus that mines information, supplements and underlines. Yet the word archive implies closed; a repository for inactive materials; ultimately, a mausoleum of sorts.

[3] No matter how much we may yearn for equivocal relations, a symbiosis of sorts that underscores connectivity; it doesn't exist here.

[4] It is arguable that the library does propagate ideas. The reader consumes the library (mentally) -- leaving the physical body of the library intact. Another reader makes notations -- underlining in pen and pencil. An arguable mutation. Some leave notes within the book. Some salivate and eat and the pages decompose. There are those who insert the sharp corner pages under the fingernail, rooting out the dirt and the book's edge is now dulled and grimy. Furthermore, there are those who eat books. Shelly Jackson, author and artist, raises the bar when she writes that she has inserted book pages into her vagina.

[5] A hierarchical power dynamic is suddenly and subtly instated -- mute forest (untrue) and spoken word (that, in all reality, we know not to ignite any substance.) What happens is that nature is determined to be passive (what's new?) and man (a man at war) is the active agent.

[6] We crave the unmediated manna (breast, gun, sugar, fat, car). Yet doesn't the image of the object both sustain the desire as well as create a remove? But a different remove... a distillation instead of diffusion.

[7] And not on words?

[8] The physical utility of these objects -- storing, killing, healing, and coloring -- preempts the nostalgia for sylvan retreats or ancient woodland origins that is sometimes triggered by the appearance of wood grain -- fake or real.

Works Cited

Bataille. Georges. Visions of Excess: Selected Writings 1927-1939. Trans. Stoekl, Allan. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, USA, 1985.

Char, René. This Smoke That Carried Us: Selected Poems of René Char. Trans. Dubroff, Susanne. Buffalo, New York: White Pine Press, USA, 2004.

Hough, Romaine Beck. The American Woods. Exhibited by Actual Specimens. Complete 1-14 vols. Lowville, New York: Pub., and sections prepared by the author, 1893-1928.

M.W. Blackburn recently taught "Dropping Out: The Aesthetics of Disappearance" and "Visualizing Aggression: Documenting America at War" at the Art Institute of Chicago. "This Dream; This Frequency", a work that consists of four scattered AM radio transmitters broadcasting a mix of the nocturnal dreams of American soldiers in Iraq and fragments of ancient Mesopotamian dreams leaked into car radios in Chicago. is an evolving time-based visual work that investigates notions of self-rescue and how landscape is oft commandeered for this purpose. Additional publications: Aperture, Brooklyn Rail, Cabinet Magazine, Loudpaper, and Women and Performance.