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Id-Grids and Ego-Graphs: A Typographic Confabulation with Finnegans Wake

“First we feel. Then we fall.”

Long before the Tumblr era of visual quotes, long before the ubiquity of typographic treatments of famous words, long before the age of art and design projects inspired by literary classics, in 1978, to be precise, Brooklyn-born artist and poet Jacob Drachler (1909-1998) released Id-Grids and Ego-Graphs: A Confabulation With Finnegans Wake (public library) – a visually gripping suite of 44 graphics that captures in a beautifully abstract, ethereal yet tangibly coherent way the essence of the dense Joyce classic.

Drachler writes in the foreword:

I have mined the immense “Unterwealth” of Finnegans Wake, not with the aim of illustrating Joyce’s mythic narrative, but rather to tap into the energies of his truly protean language, and thus to bring about new contexts of word and image. Having been for many years a spellbound delver in the Wake, I began, for this project, a systematic culling out of hundreds of brief texts that spoke to me with particular resonance. I would then comb back and forth through these texts somewhat the way a water-douser follows his forked branch. Texts would call forth forms and forms would find their texts. The new contexts which were thus given shape are, to be sure, merely one man’s response to Joycean insights — a confabulation with a fabled work.

Thanks to Austin’s wonderful South Congress Books, where I found Joyce’s little-known poems, I got my hands on one of the few surviving copies — here is a glimpse of the deliciousness inside:

Though this gem is sadly long out of print, used copies can still be found. Happily, my limited-edition find includes this gorgeous original screenprint, signed by Drachler:

Take the abstraction level down a significant notch, but not the visual delight, with some illustrations from Joyce’s posthumously discovered children’s book.

Thanks to my friends at the School of Visual Arts for letting me use their large scanner.


Love Letter as Obituary: How To Praise Like Legendary Ad Man David Ogilvy

“Many nice men are too dumb to be anything else.”

Few are the legends of communication arts whose legacy tells us something not merely about how to sell well but how to live well, whose minds reveal something deeper about the inner workings of the self rather than the mere machinery that fueled “the century of the self,” who teach us something not only about the tricks of the commercial trade but also about what makes the human heart tick. Among those exceptional few is advertising icon and original “Mad Man” David Ogilvy (June 23, 1911–July 21, 1999). From the out-of-print 1986 gem The Unpublished David Ogilvy (public library) — the same compendium of his lectures, memos, and lists that gave us his 10 timeless tips on writing — comes this memo sent to a veteran copywriter on April 2, 1971, which bespeaks with equal measure Ogilvy’s unapologetic standards, his wry wit, and his self-conscious but unrelenting humanity:

Harry just read me the letter you wrote me yesterday, on your anniversary.

Shyness makes it impossible for me to tell any man what I think of him when he is still alive. However, if I outlive you, I shall write an obituary along these lines:

––––––––– was probably the nicest man I have ever known. His kindness to me, and to dozens of other people, was nothing short of angelic.

Many nice men are too dumb to be anything else. But ––––––––– was far from dumb. Indeed, he had a superb intelligence.

His judgment of men and events was infallible; I came to rely on it more and more as the years went by.

He was one of my few partners who worked harder and longer hours than I did. He gave value for money. And he knew his trade.

He was an honest man, in the largest sense of the word. He had a glorious sense of humor.

He had the courage to challenge me when he thought I was wrong, but he always contrived to do it without annoying me.

There was nothing saccharine about him. Tolerant as he was, he did no like everybody; he disliked the people who deserved to be disliked.

He never pursued popularity, but he inspired universal affection.

The Unpublished David Ogilvy is fantastic in its entirety, a treasure trove of wisdom on business, creative culture, and the human condition.

Photograph via Ogilvy One


The Philosophy of Immortality

“Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.”

“If we are continually inadequate in love, uncertain in decision and impotent in the face of death, how is it possible to exist?,” Rilke famously asked. “The idea that you’d have to say ‘goodbye’ to all this — even though it’s infuriating and maddening and frightening and horrible, some of the time — is even more infuriating and maddening and horrible: How do you spend this time without perpetually being so broken-hearted about saying the eventual goodbye?,” Maira Kalman pondered.

In this short interview for Brain Pickings, pop-philosophy hunter-gatherer Filip Matous sits down with Cambridge University philosopher Stephen Cave to crack open some of the insights from his fascinating book, Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization (public library) — which also gave us this stimulating, if unsettling meditation on the mortality paradox.

The crux of Cave’s argument falls somewhere between Montaigne’s reflections on death and the art of living and John Cage’s affinity for Zen Buddhism.

We, like all living things, want to live on — we want to project ourselves into the future, we have this will to live. And yet, unlike other living things, we have to live in a knowledge that this will is going to be thwarted, that we’re going to die. And so we might have to live with this sense of personal apocalypse — the worst thing that could possibly happen, will. This is what it means to be mortal.

But this very sense of our inevitable mortality might also be a steering wheel for life: Cave reminds us that “busy is a choice” and that how we spend our time shapes who we become:

The American novelist Susan Ertz says, “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” I think there’s a lot of truth in that: Actually, it’s the fear of death rather than the love of life, often, that’s motivating us. If people complain that they don’t have enough time, why do they watch so much TV? It doesn’t seem, actually, when we look at the way people behave, that lack of time is their problem. On the contrary … when you look at how much time we waste, [it seems] that life is already too long — so long that we become complacent and we waste great swathes, so many hours. And, in fact, being conscious of the fact that our time is limited is what makes us really value and appreciate the time that we have.

Cave touches on Tolstoy’s wisdom, observing:

There’s a kind of conspiracy of silence… We, culturally, don’t like to talk about death. I think we need to talk about death because only by talking about our mortality can we understand the lives we’re leading and why we’re leading them the way we’re leading them.

Immortality remains a must-read, and the Ernest Becker book mentioned in the conversation, The Denial of Death, is also very much worth a read.


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