“All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”
– Susan Sontag, On Photography
In a post for her blog Brain Pickings, Maria Popova introduces the above quotation by asserting photography as “both an attempted antidote to our mortality paradox and a deepening awareness of it.” “This seems especially true,” Popova continues, “if subtly tragic, as we fill our social media timelines with images, as if to prove that our biological timelines – our very lives – are filled with notable moments, which also remind us that they are all inevitably fleeting towards the end point of that timeline: mortality itself.”
Popova’s post and, in particular, Susan Sontag’s quotation, reminded me of an image I came across about a year ago while studying at the Folger Shakespeare Library. I was doing research for a dissertation-related project exploring the relation between practices of literary invention and English Renaissance ideas about mutability, mortality, and memento mori (Latin: “Remember that you have to die”). The following turned up in my search results:
Fig. 1 Folger MS V.a.311, fol. 43r. [i]
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The image is of an illustration from Thomas Fella’s commonplace book, or miscellany, A booke of diverse devices and sorts of pictures, compiled between 1592 and 1598, to which he later made additions in July 1622. Fella was a calligrapher and draper from the Halesworth area of Suffolk County, England. He didn’t attend university, and most of what is known about him derives from two extant writings, including his commonplace book. Perhaps this is what I find so interesting about him: little is known about Fella – “who” he was, what his life was “like.” But if we turn, for clues, to the images and aphorisms copied into his commonplace book, or “timeline,” as it were, it’s striking that those which he thought to include seem to be, as Popova writes, reminders “that they are all inevitably fleeting towards the end point of that timeline: mortality itself.” While the invention of photography postdates Fella’s commonplace book by about two and a half centuries, Popova and Sontag are, I think, instructive for how we might interpret certain of Fella’s illustrations and, more broadly, a particular historical moment in print, visual culture, and memory.
Issuing from the man’s mouth in Fig. 1 is a banderole, or “speech bubble,” on which appear the words “Tempus Omnia terminat” (Latin: “Time ends all things”) – a sort of memento mori proclaiming “time’s relentless melt.” What initially attracted my attention to this image, however, was the phrase written within the second banderole: “Life is death and death is Life.” Fella’s appropriation of the phrase isn’t unusual; I’d encountered it before in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century sermons, all of which place it within the context of St. Augustine’s City of God (462 AD). Variant iterations of the phrase crop up in other English Renaissance texts, most famously in Hamlet’s musings on being and not being – “To be, or not to be.”
However, Fella’s deployment of the phrase participates, per Sontag, “in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability,” namely English Renaissance printer John Day:
Fig. 2 Folger MS, f.515v
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In the 1563 edition of John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, there is, included at its end, a woodcut-cum-miniature portrait (quasi-photograph?) of John Day, Foxe’s printer. The woodcut is included in all editions of Actes and Monuments. Engraved within the ribbon that encircles Day’s profile is the phrase, “LIEFE IS DEATHE AND DEATH IS LIEFE,” bookended by Roman numerals indicating Day’s age. Forty.
The few scholarly paragraphs devoted to Fella’s commonplace book are driven, primarily, by a desperation to find out how he was able to access texts such as Foxe’s Actes and Monuments – whether he owned them, borrowed them – and what other texts the images might have been copied from: the “irrepressible desire to return to the origin,” as Derrida has it.[ii] I share this desire somewhat differently, however: what fascinates me is the delicate balance that Fella strikes between his meticulous attention to the original medium of Day’s woodcut and the apparent differences in his copying of it.
While this image suggests a heightened attention to the sensuous particularities of everyday objects, namely Fella’s interest in the materiality of the woodcut, I think that copying the woodcut communicates this interest in a different way: it holds the memory of its past engravedness, of its former life, in Foxe’s book. The aesthesis of Day’s woodcut is memorialized in the shading techniques used by Fella to detail Day’s apparel, hair, and beard. If memory, as defined by William Fulwood in The Castel of Memorie (1562), is the faculty by “which the mind repeateth things that are past,”[iii] then copying – repetition – is, for Fella, an aesthetic technique through which he preserves, yet also recreates, the medium of the woodcut in his own “timeline” – the English Renaissance commonplace book.
Indeed, the phrase and numbers that encircle, confine, Day’s profile in Fig. 2 are, in Fella’s rendering, notions over which he has physical and sensual control: life and death he grips with his hand, but Fella also used his hand to write those italic words into the swirling banderole on which they appear. Whereas Day’s woodcut indicates his age, or the passage of time, via Roman numerals, Fella’s illustration ostensibly speaks of time’s finitude, and of age, as memento mori – “Remember that you have to die.” Fella thus participates in Day’s “mortality, vulnerability, mutability” by “slicing out,” or copying, the woodcut into his commonplace book.
Fittingly, the phrase “Tempus omnia terminat” – “Time ends all things” – is the epigraph to Fella’s “end” page (Fig. 3), at once testifying “to time’s relentless melt” and acknowledging the inevitable end point of his own timeline/commonplace book: “And all must ende that ever was begonne.” The whole of Fella’s miscellany is preoccupied with mortality – and, for someone alive during the plague-ridden English Renaissance, understandably so. But if A booke of diverse devices and sorts of pictures is “both an attempted antidote to our mortality paradox and a deepening awareness of it,” so, too, is my interest in it. I participate in Fella’s “mortality, vulnerability, mutability” as I look at, and write about, a digitized image of his copied image of Day’s woodcut image.
However, the phrase “Life is death and death is Life,” especially Fella’s deployment of it, has a chiasmatic formulation – it implies circularity rather than antithesis. Time’s melt is relentless; but, as Hamlet so often reminds us, memory is the only human antidote to mortality.
Fig. 3 Folger MS V.a.311, fol. 75r
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[i] All images from Thomas Fella’s A booke of diverse devices and sorts of images are here used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/.
[ii] Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever, trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995), 91.
[iii] Guglielmo Gratarolo, The castel of memorie, trans. William Fulwood (London: 1562).
Amy K. Burnette is a 6th year doctoral candidate in the Department of English at Syracuse University where she is currently at work on her dissertation project, Praxis Memoriae: Memory as Aesthetic Technique in English Renaissance Literature, 1580-1630.