Bringhurst, looking back in time, but really back

I had already written some notes about Robert Bringhurst, right after having met him personally in Helsinki some months ago. His Everywhere Being is Dancing – twenty pieces of thinking is perhaps less known than his famous book The Elements of Typography. It is however one of the collection of essays that I have read with most trepidation in a long, long time. Perhaps the main point is the difference between Bringhurst’s ideas and those of most of the rest of people: his perspective when discussing poetry, war, society, language, tools, singing, voices, stories puts to shame our extremely narrow interval. Instead of just looking at just thirty centuries of literature, as we usually do (when we want something remote we think Homer or some books of the Hebrew Bible), he ponders perhaps a couple of hundred centuries, he traces our bearings in language, in poetry, in mathematics even, as part of a development started sixty, seventy thousand years ago – the written sentence being much more recent and perhaps ephemeral than we want to admit.

I have to incorporate some of his ideas in a couple of things I am writing. I won’t elaborate more on this at this point – but I do want to quote an excerpt of his essay A Poet and a War on Avdo Međedović, a Montenegrin poet and the permanence of the tradition of epic poetry in the Mediterranean since Agamemnon’s time. But here is the quote:

War in its twenty-first century glory is the nightmare of industrial technology, but the war that most affects my daily life is the Four Century War (c. 1500-c.1900) fought between invading Europeans and retreating Native Americans for the land in which I live. That war, rarely mentioned in the textbooks, left more than six million dead in North America alone, yet it was fought with minimal equipment and very little centralized command. The most devastating weapons used were biological – smallpox bacilli in particular. These agents were often delivered haphazardly, by preindustrial means, yet their effectiveness was huge.

Robert Bringhurst, speaking at the Helsinki Mathematics Department on the structure of Navajo Poetry (in Cháálatsoh, the Origin of Horses). Photo: AV.