Mine, Not Mine

What does it mean to own something, say, a beautiful book? Perhaps a book like this one.

It's possible, you know. Maybe not this book exactly*--as far as I know, the university is not planning on auctioning off its collection--but one very like it. Hundreds almost exactly the same survive from the workshops of fifteenth-century Bruges. You might even be able to find one illuminated by the very same master (Willem Vrelant) or, if not the master, perhaps (like this one) one of his assistants. The library probably paid something along the lines of $3000 when it purchased this book back in the early 20th century.** Now you'd more likely be looking at something starting around 40,000 Euros, if you were lucky and nobody else bid. Would you want one?

Myself, I don't know. It would be a terrible responsibility, after all. These books are hundreds and hundreds of years old, containing some of the most beautiful paintings produced in their time and exhibiting a level of craftsmanship that few in our own day could ever hope to achieve. Gone are the workshops that trained assistants for decades to mix paints to exactly the right hues; gone are the years and years of practice in working with hair-fine brushes and regular patterns. Perhaps our own craftspeople working in CGI might come close, but not in this medium, not making artifacts like these. There may have been tens of thousands such books made by workshops in Flanders and France five hundred years ago, but none have been made since the printing press supplanted the scribe. Mass-produced in their own day, they are now irreplaceable.

Which has not, of course, stopped subsequent owners from doing with them whatever they would, cutting them up so as to sell individual images, rebinding them to fit modern fashions, even writing in them, as so many of us do (myself included, particularly with "work" books) with the mass-produced books of our own day. Working with this particular book this past week, I wished somebody had written in it other than the original owner (who recorded his grandfather's death at age 94 on a blank page before the verses of St. Bernard***) so that I could reference the folios by number without losing my place. If it were my book, I would write the folio numbers in, wouldn't I? But then maybe if it were mine, I wouldn't want to damage or alter it. Perhaps I would want to keep it as close to its original state as possible.

I'm twitching still from the strain of working with this and our (note the "our") other books like it. Yesterday, I had hoped that my son (age 12) would be able to help hold this book open for me as I took the photographs, but one of the librarians intervened and told me that it was not good for the books to be pressed open so hard. We experimented with various weights, but in the end I held the books open with one hand while my son was relegated to the office of scribe, taking notes for me of the images I was recording. I am sure that I was pressing on the book just as hard as my son, who was--being the child of an archeological conservator--considerably more concerned about even touching the book than I was. But somehow my status as faculty could not convey on him the privilege of touching the books owned by "my" university. I may be allowed to touch the books, but he isn't.

Things would be different if it were actually my book. Not only could I write it in, but I could control who touched it or worked with it. I could even specify through my will to whom I would like the book to belong after my death. I could destroy it or, even better, copy it and sell the copies for money--unless, that is, Willem Vrelant were still alive, at which point the question of possession would get even trickier. The thing is, would the book be anymore mine than it is now, when I have the privilege (as a library card holder) of reading it, publishing descriptions of it, and thinking about what it says? I'm not so sure.

We live our lives surrounded by stuff, some of it beautiful (like a book of Hours), some of it simply useful (like my desk). Some things we claim to own, but in the end, when we die, what does that mean? We can't--unless the Austin Lounge Lizards are right--take the things with us. Our things, like the Berlaere's book of Hours (now Regenstein MS 184), will remain in the world of things after us. Our children and grandchildren may want to have the privilege of deciding what happens with our things, but they too will pass on and the things (so long as they are cared for) will stay. What does Paschasius de Belaere, son of Jacobus de Belaere, who himself died at age 84, think of my using his family's book for the purposes of my research? Judging from the illuminations in the book, I rather suspect he would prefer I use it to pray for his and his father's souls than to make arguments about workshops, book production and questions of self-identity among the wealthier members of late fifteenth-century Flemish society. But what can he say about it now? He's dead.

This was meant to be a serious reflection on the problem of ownership and our relationship to things, but during the course of its composition, my family invaded "my" space in the living room and are now carrying on a spirited conversation about...guy stuff and I can't remember what I was trying to say. When asked to leave, they stared at me cat-like and pointed out that I don't own the living room and have a perfectly good office in the back of the apartment if I want to go work there. At which point I asked if they would promise to leave me alone if I moved; more cat-like stares, followed by raucous laughter. Which is ironic, because the serious version of this post was going to end on something about becoming a monk or a nun and renouncing all claims to holding things as private possessions. We have the use of things while we live, but in the end, they belong to the world or to no one. Only our bodies and souls are ours, and even they belong ultimately to God.

So what does it mean to own something like a beautiful book? At a minimum, it would mean exchanging money that I might use for something else--food, travel, clothes, mortgage payments, tuition fees--for the privilege of doing what I will in my lifetime with that beautiful thing, but if I care for that thing as a thing, I would not want to do the one thing with it that would most mark it as mine: obliterate it. And if I have this response to a mere thing, even one so beautiful as Regenstein MS 184, how much the more should I care for the one thing that is truly mine, and yet still not mine: my soul? Now there's a sobering thought; not at all where I expected this meditation to end. But, after all, where else should it end?

I have to go to practice now.

*The University of Chicago Library, Special Collections Research Center, MS 184.
**I'm guessing based on the figures that I have seen for some of the other books of Hours in the collection. I don't know the exact amount the university paid for MS 184.
***I'll explain what these are in a later post. Probably with pictures. More comic strip art.


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