David Byrne’s Illustrated History of the Possible Future
“The way things were, the way we made things, it turns out, none of it was inevitable — none of it is the way things have to be.”
By Maria Popova
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” Keats wrote in the closing lines of his “Ode to a Grecian Urn” in the spring of 1819, in the spring of modern science. Humanity was coming abloom with new knowledge of reality as astronomy was supplanting the superstitions of astrology and chemistry was rising form the primordial waters of alchemy. Ten years earlier, when Keats was a teenager, Dalton had at last confirmed the existence of the atom — the great dream Democritus had dreamt civilizations earlier; the dream Aristotle, drunk on power and certitude, had squashed with his theory of the four elements. A beautiful truth buried in a Grecian urn and laid to rest, roused two thousand years later by the kiss of chemistry.
The story of our species is punctuated with a thousand analogous atoms of experience. Truth is beauty in the workings of the world, but in the workings of humanity, truth is often sleeping beauty. Even on the miniature timescale of our own lifetimes — these grunts in the story of the world — it can take us years or decades of hindsighted reflection to arrive at the truth of our experience, any experience, and all the more so the greater its complexity and its toll on us.
Two hundred springtimes after Keats, David Byrne explores this facet of the human condition in his felicitously uncategorizable book A History of the World (in Dingbats) (public library) — a playful yet poignant meditation, in words and drawings, on the human truths unveiled as the world came unworlded by the global pandemic that became the great shared experience of our lifetimes.
Radiating from the pages, delightfully designed and typeset by Alex Kalman, is Byrne’s buoyant vision for the new world, a world of magnified mutuality and widespread poetry of possibility; a vision for life not merely restored to how it used to be but reset, recalibrated, revitalized — life that is a little bit more alive.
In the first section, titled “Sleeping Beauty,” he writes with an eye to the history of the atom:
Throughout history, some ideas, connections, perspectives, and technologies have emerged, come into view, and then often go to sleep. Brilliant inventions, stories, and techniques can vanish from our view, sometimes for long periods, lying dormant until someone wakes them.
The list of sleepers is long. Like mountains and oceans, dark forests and remote landscapes, they surround us, interred, peaceful, and unrecognized. Concrete, steam engines, clocks — all created and forgotten.
Observing that this happens as much in art as in science — it happened to Blake, until Anne Gilchrist wrested him from Romantic obscurity; it happened to Bach, until Albert Schweitzer wrested him from classical obscurity — Byrne adds:
Surely even now many more lie slumbering among and around us. Some of them are known unknowns, like the missing works of Aristotle or Shakespeare — we know of their existence, but they are lost. Others are the unknown unknowns — works and insights so invisible to us that we have forgotten they existed.
Beautiful insights, marvels, and miracles lie everywhere, peacefully awaiting a gentle touch or recognition. As we emerge into a new world we may be able to finally remove our veils and see them all around us.
And so, dingbats — those odd glyphs born as meaningless graphical elements to give typesetters and printmakers in Keats’s era a way to liven up their layouts, which later took on a life of their own as an increasingly elaborate symbolic language, then morphed into an early computer font. The pictures in the book originated as a kind of visual library of dingbat-inspired drawings, which Byrne created for the digital-age typesetters and printmakers of the editorial team behind his boundlessly wonderful online journal Reasons to be Cheerful.
But, given his lifelong love of drawing, he soon found himself getting pleasurably carried away. “Once open, the faucet flowed,” he writes. What poured forth was a cross between Codex Seraphinianus and E.E. Cummings’s little-known philosophical line drawings.
In the time of COVID, these postmodern dingbats flooded his mind and his sketchbook with “thoughts about one’s body, one’s mental state, one’s priorities and values, one’s household routines, the world beyond one’s house or apartment,” about “what really matters” — his own thoughts, but thoughts he intuited others living through “this surreal, tragic, revelatory, and unsettling experience” were thinking, and others who had lived through other hardships over the millennia had thought.
Eventually, he noticed that the drawings were clustering into categories of thought and feeling. Themes began to emerge, contouring our collective fears and desires, mapping our transformation as we incline together toward a more possible and supranormative future that is not — for it cannot be, we learned — a mere recreation and renormalization of the past.
What emerges from these pictorial dispatches from our past selves to our future selves is a kind of abstract record of the feelings beneath and around and beyond the concrete events we so readily mistake for history. An excavation of the poetic truth beneath the facts. A truer history. (Lest we forget, history is not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgment and chance.)
At the center of the book is a subtle meditation on the power of the stories we tell ourselves about how the world works, what the world is and should be and could be — whatever shape these stories may take: “propaganda and parables, delight and deception, mystery and manipulation.”
Echoing James Baldwin’s penetrating insistence that “nothing is fixed” and Richard Powers’s electrically worded warning that “this fluke, single, huge, cross-indexed, thermodynamic experiment of a story that the world has been inventing to tell itself at bedtime is… not even the outline of a synopsis of notes toward a rough draft yet,” Byrne writes in the introduction:
The history of the world is a story we tell ourselves.
Though the permanency of writing has slowed the process, these stories we tell ourselves about the world are not fixed. They are ever and continually revised and changed. History is not what happened, but it is what we agree happened — shaped by our biases and self-serving interests.
Stories are lessons we send to ourselves — some remain vibrant and relevant while others are only useful for a moment. They serve myriad purposes that are often beyond our ken, for better or worse, and sometimes both at the same time.
In the second section of drawings, clustered around the subject of “fermentation” — a process of organic chemistry that destroys matter to release energy, from which Byrne draws an existential metaphor for “a kind of coming together, conjunction, and collaboration, resulting in merging and transformation” — he reflects:
It is the same in the realm of thought and feeling —
emotional fizziness and intellectual disruption.
Drunk on love and bubbling new insights.
We are not a brain in a box, separate from our bodies, our senses, and the billions of microbes that live within us.
Love, sex, desire, hunger, and the need to be together may make us less than rational.
We may live in a world of our own imagining, but it allows us to dance, sing, and do a thousand things that machines may never be able to do without programming.
In the third cluster, titled “Bridge to Mind,” he considers the assemblage of life-artifacts we all live with — those emblems of our past selves that we amass in the form of photographs and postcards and books and the small blue vial of golden confetti from the wedding of a long-dead friend — and ponders the eternal mystery of what makes us and our younger selves the “same” person despite a lifetime of physical, psychological, and situational changes. A generation after Joan Didion counseled that “we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not,” he wonders:
Who was I then? Would I like myself, even?
Would the person I’m with like me?
Is there forward momentum, as it seems to feel to us, or are we moving sideways?
Echoing Rilke’s century-old wisdom on the combinatorial nature of personhood and creativity, he adds:
Every book I’ve read, every street, face, and song. I’m made of people and things outside myself, beyond myself, and beyond my own control.
Here is the miracle.
In another section, under the cluster-heading “Cityhead,” he writes:
We live in a city in our heads. The buildings that surround us, along with our clothes and our hairstyles, we invented these things.
Everything in its right place, labeled and grouped according to elaborate and ever-changing criteria.
Only you can find the way — in the city in your head.
We replicate and impose these ways of categorizing and naming things on the outside world. Our template is our guard against chaos and an ever-changing filter.
The categories offer us both liberation and confinement. Geometries of freedom and hierarchies of restriction. Chaotic and organized, passionate and dissolute.
In the epilogue, echoing Baldwin’s abiding reminder that “we made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over,” Byrne writes:
In the new world the rules have changed — or at least there is the possibility of change.
The way things were, the way we made things, it turns out, none of it was inevitable — none of it is the way things have to be.
We can be different.
Complement A History of the World (in Dingbats) — the visual and somatic delights of which any summary and screen diminishes — with Byrne’s poetic celebration of the widest perspective with art by Maira Kalman (mother of this book’s designer, as it happens), then revisit Rebecca Solnit on rewriting the past’s broken stories for a more possible future.
Published March 24, 2022