Carl Djerassi’s sumptuous foretaste of publishing’s mixed-media future, part 1

Angelus Novus, Paul Klee, 1920 - photograph by David Harris

Angelus Novus, Paul Klee, 1920
– photograph by David Harris

Now, here’s a strange thing: the most thrilling media-bending creation that we at post-Gutenberg have met is not by a gangling, google-eyed nineteen year-old muttering ‘mashup’ and ‘re-mix’ in sleeptalk, but by someone who will be ninety in October, writing imaginatively in voices brought back from the dead.

Carl Djerassi, featured here in April,  … who made his name as an inventor of birth control pills and has won high honours as both a scientist and technologist, is somehow cramming at least four lives into a single lifespan. His harbinger of mixed-media publishing’s future evolution is a hybrid of ingeniously animated philosophical debate, art appreciation, experimental graphics and dramatization. It comes pressed between cardboard covers, titled Four Jews on Parnassus, and fitted with a pocket holding a CD compilation of clips from musical tributes by five composers to a single painting by Paul Klee.

We will call the result simply a book for shorthand. The right-sounding term for it has yet to be invented. It is available as an e-book**, but the images in it – roughly half of them feats of larky digital tinkering, and as essential to its purposes as the pictures John Berger chose for Ways of Seeing were to his – are best savoured on paper. Rolls Royce-grade colour printing on luscious glossy pages makes Four Jews on Parnassus virtually pirate-proof; cheap knock-offs are inconceivable.

If, as we believe, the only adequate reply to a great poem is a dance, if not another poem, then Four Jews is a re-creation — in the identical spirit — of just what was so great about German Jewish intellectuals of the early 20th century. Few of us brought up in the Anglophone tradition know much about their gifts to culture – our enlightenment having been obscured by lingering antipathies from the two world wars – even though many of us have heard their circle described as the pinnacle of discerning European aestheticism in modern times.

Had Djerassi tried to evoke this milieu and four of its superstars through making a film, the usual limitations of bio-pics – which lean to simple-mindedness and put too great a strain on our ability to suspend disbelief – would have got in the way. Four Jews reminded post-Gutenberg of the happiness of eavesdropping in cafes in the romantic city on the Seine – listening to strangers who happen to be old friends teasing each other, exposing all their foibles, as they tackle weighty and absorbing questions about art and culture with the confident casualness of master-chefs whipping up meringues.

Djerassi, who was born in Vienna, migrated to America at sixteen. Yet he has retained the European talent for using intelligent discursiveness to engage and charmingly instruct — in spite of his success as a technologist and scientist among colleagues for whom conversation is strictly about finding the shortest distance between two points, ignoring entrancing scenery en route.

The Jews of his title are not easily slotted. Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) was a Hebrew scholar, but also a historian. Theodor Adorno (1903-69) was a sociologist, philosopher and musicologist. Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) was an Austrian composer and painter.

Copyright-haters have recently been apt to invoke the name of the fourth, the cultural theorist and critic, Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) – interpreting his famous essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility’ to mean that technology has so commodified art that it needs rescuing by nullifying the copyright of the replicators responsible for that commodification (and if this also destroys artists’ rights to own their own work, too bad.) By some impenetrable sequence of mental acrobatics, this reading of Benjamin is seen by the anti-copyright camp as proof that copyright causes commodification. (See ‘Does copyright turn art into commodities?’ part 1).

In Four Jews, Djerassi filters actual and imaginary debates between his philosophical quartet through his own, idiosyncratic mental preoccupations. He places the men on Mt. Parnassus, classical Greece’s equivalent of heaven for cultural supremos. The book is written as a long play whose most dramatic passages occur in revisiting episodes in the lives of the protagonists before their ascent to the clouds – peaking in outrageous sexual peccadilloes and other marital betrayals and travails. The talk is interrupted now and then by explanations of context and rich, complex and playful pictorial illustrations. Dialogue, Djerassi explains in his introduction, has fallen out of use for exposition by scientists – though it was used to great effect in the past by thinkers of the calibre of Galileo and Erasmus. This, he says, is a shame – and he quotes the Earl of Shaftesbury’s belief that dialogue is preferable to the ‘more dispassionate third-person voice’ for encouraging an ‘Intercourse of Caresses between the Author and Reader’.

In the Djerassian scheme, his immortals can order books from Amazon, but do not have email. To help make particular arguments, the author creates an acquaintanceship between Schoenberg and the others that never existed in life.

It is unsurprising that his book had to be published by the Columbia University Press (with the help of the Pushkin Fund) – and has had practically no reviewer attention since its publication in 2008. Commercial publishers are still frightened of proposals for mixed-media books. Reviewers, like bookstores, are used to working in categories and compartments. Four Jews treats frontiers between art forms and disciplines as if they did not exist – just as its characters did, to a remarkable degree, in reality.

The astonishingly prolific Swiss and German painter Paul Klee (1879-1940) – from among whose nine thousand works Djerassi has been a collector for years – ‘profoundly affected the lives of three of my main personages,’ and more musical composers ‘than any other painter in art history’. Klee himself, he says, was ‘a superb classical musician’. In one conversational segment, Adorno tells Schoenberg that Klee inspired ‘330 composers producing over 500 compositions’ and calls these a ‘minimal estimate’ with the actual count being over eight hundred, including an Icelandic pop song by Egill Olafsson (included in the musical offerings on the book’s CD).

Schoenberg, who invented a variant of chess for four players, managed to earn a place in the musical firmament even though, as Djerassi explains, his early career as a composer was as discouraging as his start in his other vocation, painting – in which he never made his mark:

Schoenberg’s first public exhibition in 1910 Vienna was panned by the critics – as much of his music had been – yet the following year he was prepared to paint portraits for a living.

Is there a single contemporary sociologist who can presume to the authority with which Adorno theorised about music? Our guess: no. The Wikipedia says: ‘As a classically trained pianist whose sympathies with the twelve-tone technique of Arnold Schoenberg resulted in his studying composition with Alban Berg […] Adorno’s commitment to avant-garde music formed the backdrop of his subsequent writings and led to his collaboration with Thomas Mann on … Doctor Faustus.’

Benjamin’s mind and psyche were so profoundly engaged by art that he did more than merely collect Klee’s works before the painter became famous. He used one picture that particularly fascinated him, ‘Angelus Novus,’ to focus his thoughts about history for an essay titled ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’. As his – mostly posthumous – renown grew in the second half of the last century, that particular Klee work acquired iconic status.

Nothing is more stimulating to speculative minds than contrarianism. Djerassi teaches his readers a great deal about his quartet’s contributions to culture through inventing an argument between them, using this to explain his personal conviction that Benjamin should have made a different selection from the fifty-odd angel paintings by Klee – a picture far better suited to his essay’s theme and tone than ‘Novus’. (An extract from that argument can be read here.)

Then, in a leap into pure fun – remarkably effective at deepening interest and perception in his readers – Djerassi offers impish graphic demonstrations of other angelic possibilities by mixing and matching Klee pictures in close collaboration with a contemporary Austrian artist, Gabriele Seethaler. With his generous permission, we have reproduced these in a companion entry in this blog. (See part 2.)

‘Th’intertraffique of the minde’ to which the Oxford historian John Hale refers in his Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance (1994), quoting a medieval scholar, was incalculably stimulated during the grand transformation by travel, translation, and scholarly forums. Crucial to it was the invention of Gutenberg’s press, whose printed books ‘facilitated discussion over distance because page numbers and diagrams could be cited from identical copies’.

Post-print mindes communing across continents have, for some time, been able to look at the same web page simultaneously, and help themselves freely to the treasures of many disciplines and art forms.

Mixed-media creation is infectious. After hours of – sometimes hypnotic — immersion in Four Jews, post-Gutenberg is loath to return to offline works-in-progress. Mere static texts that do not speak, sing or lean exclusively on images to make a point here and there have begun to feel as quaintly dated and limiting as swirling script lettered by quill pen.

** An earlier version of this entry mistakenly said that Four Jews on Parnassus is not available as an e-volume. We cannot remember what gave us that impression when we bought it a few weeks ago, but apologise for our error.

[ For the record, post-Gutenberg has never met Carl Djerassi. All exchanges with this intellectually generous correspondent about ideas of mutual interest have been made across great distances. ]