Wednesday, 4 March 2009

The Toad Work

Isn't it annoying, when work gets in the way of the things you really want to do? I've had a busy couple of months, and photography and blogging have had to take a back seat. Now, I always try to keep a space in my diary for staring into space -- because that, if I'm honest, is the main thing I want to do (I'm not what you would call a driven man) -- but the other stuff has been exposed (perhaps "revealed" is a better word) as a parergon. This is an ugly but interesting and useful word (plural: parerga) if, like me, you are allergic to the word "hobby."

The meaning of the word is nicely illustrated in the OED by a quotation from Harold Nicolson in a letter to Vita Sackville-West:
"I don't think that you will really go down to posterity as a writer of gardening articles. You will be remembered as a poet... So your gardening things will be regarded as a mere parergon (‘a bye-work’), like the flute-playing of Frederick the Great."
Nicely put, Harold, but -- bloody hell -- how wrong can you be? However, even if I never sell another print or have another exhibition, I will always prefer to think of my photography as an activity on a par with Frederick the Great's flute playing*, or Vita Sackville-West's gardening, than anything as anaemic as a "hobby." No, please don't say anything.

The best definition of a parergon I have come across ran along the lines of "a part of your brain which you cultivate separately in order to keep the main part sane," though I think it is more usually used to refer to "interesting out-takes from another project." Needless to say, such a useful but pointless and obscure word is a gift to the philosophers, and here's a definition by that master of lucidity Jacques Derrida:
"A parergon comes against, beside, and in addition to the ergon, the work done [fait], the fact [le fait], the work, but does not fall to one side, it touches and cooperates within the operation, from a certain outside. Neither simply outside nor simply inside. Like an accessory that one is obliged to welcome on the border, on board [au bord, à bord]. It is first of all the on (the) bo(a)rd(er) ."
The Truth in Painting, translated (?) by Geoff Bennington & Ian McLeod
Those last two sentences are enchanting, aren't they? You have to wonder what kind of accessory he has in mind -- a man-bag, perhaps, or a jaunty but idiotic sailor's hat, maybe? Perhaps it works better in French:
"Un parergon vient contre, à côté et en plus de l'ergon, du travail fait, du fait, de l'oeuvre mais il ne tombe pas à côté, il touche et coopère, depuis un certain dehors, au-dedans de l'opération. Ni simplement dehors ni simplement dedans. Comme un accessoire qu'on est obligé d'accueillir au bord, à bord. Il est d'abord l'à-bord."
Hmmm, or maybe not. A pun too far, I reckon.

From George Wither, A Collection of Emblemes,
Ancient and Moderne, 1635

Of course, when you have the great privilege of working in a university library your paid work can have "interesting out-takes" for the other parts of your life. In pursuing the subject of Renaissance emblem books, I came across this description by Andrea Alciato (Italian humanist scholar, 1492-1550, whose book Emblemata more or less invented the genre) of his own book Parergon iuris:
"I have entitled the work itself Parergon, for it consists of asides [obiter dicta] which I made when I was teaching Law, which were digressions from the subject ... I was in the habit of relegating to my notes any passage that came to my attention during my teaching which had some interesting explanation deriving from the Humanities, lest I should seem to diminish the pride of our forbidding and serious subject of Law and appear, as the proverb has it, to mix foxes with lions."
Admirably clear, Andrea, but -- come on -- never mind mixing the foxes and the lions, what about welcoming the accessories?

* Friedrich was pretty good, mind. There's an interesting book by James F. Gaines called Evening in the Palace of Reason, which describes the encounter between Frederick the Great and J.S. Bach which resulted in the composition of the "Musical Offering." [message for Andy W.: remind me to send you my copy]

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