Eccentric Spaces

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Eccentric Spaces by Robert Harbison.

My attention first fixed on this book because its typographical composition (fonts and technopaegnia) quite clearly pays an homage to the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, and indeed, author Harbison treats the Hypnerotomachia at some length in the fifth chapter of the volume. Still, I didn’t really learn anything more about the Hypnerotomachia here. Many works of literature are discussed in the course of the book, but I suspect that in most cases, Harbison is more effective at advertising the virtues of these books than he is at illuminating anything for those familiar with them. I was especially encouraged by his musings on Salammbo, a book I’ve been long intending to read in any case.

The actual topic of Eccentric Spaces is the ways in which various arts (practical and expressive) reflect human imaginings of space. In the course of discussing topics such as gardens, machines, cities, and catalogs, Harbison turns often to paintings, sculptures, novels, and, of course, architecture to develop his points. Throughout, however, he engages in a form of criticism more aphoristic than analytical: he offers assessments, not arguments. But that can produce droll maxims like this one:

“Every pilgrim must watch his pocket, and translating a spiritual progress to a feasible journey, everyone ends up in hotels.” (128)

I think the most successful chapters were perhaps the opening one on gardens and the penultimate one on maps. The latter in particular attained a sort of rapture of cartographic contemplation. For a text so trained on the sense of vision involved in appreciating spaces, it is in fact completely devoid of graphic illustrations. Paradoxically, that’s probably how it should be, although image searching on the Internet makes the volume much more usefully readable for most people now than it would have been when it was published in 1977. [via]