Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Mapping Culture: a place for the arts in Stephen Brown's library

"The World of Imagery" by Stephen J. Brown, with a dedication to the author's  father.
In founding his Catholic library, Fr Stephen Brown incorporated all of the self-evident subject areas: from sacred scripture to the church fathers, from christology to theology , from church liturgy to the traditions of the spiritual life. However, his library also holds books in areas which might surprise those new to the library, and perhaps even those who feel they already know it well.

Brown published his first article about the library in the Irish Jesuit review Studies in 1922.  He stated his intention that there would be "few departments of human interest that would be unrepresented", and he listed the subject areas which the collection would include, and on which his classification scheme would be based. Section 26 in his scheme is assigned to Belles Lettres, comprising fiction, poetry, essays and plays.

And so the Central Catholic Library has substantial holdings in English, Irish, French, Spanish, Italian and German literature, as well as books from linguistic traditions such as Breton. Over the summer, I hope to present examples from these holdings on the blog.

But how did Stephen Brown arrive at the inclusion of literature whose primary aims are aesthetic, within a collection whose primary aim was religious? One possible answer can be found in a study called The World of Imagery, which Brown was working on in the early years of the library's existence, and which he published in 1927.

In this book he sets out to explore visually descriptive or figurative language, "to map it out, to trace its main features".  It might be thought that the sole focus of his exploration would be imaginative literature, especially poetry and literary prose, and of course he gives a lot of attention to both. For instance, in his discussion of images in which aspects of the natural world, such as the sun, are personified and given human qualities, he cites Shakespeare's Richard II, where Henry Bolingbroke, besieging Richard at Flint castle, says: "See, see, King Richard doth himself appear / As doth the blushing discontented sun, / From out the fiery portal of the East, / When he perceives the envious clouds are bent / to dim his glory".

But the interesting thing is that for Brown, to map imagery is to map culture as a whole. He writes that imagery "has significance for Language, Literature, and Art" but also for "the domain of thought", including theology and philosophy. The human capacity to make images seems to have formed, for Brown, a kind of substratum uniting all the various aspects of cultural endeavor. The accommodation of the aesthetically motivated work is guaranteed in his scheme by a cultural phenomenon, imagery, which is also a feature of sacred scripture, of theology, of christology, and so on.

Brown's planning of the library, together with the classification scheme he wrote for it, (including section 26), represent a cultural philosophy still evident in his library's collections over ninety years later.