There are undoubtedly many reasons why the short film The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore struck a chord with audiences worldwide and, in 2012, won an Academy Award. For one, it expresses the trauma of Hurricane Katrina with tact and poignancy. Another reason, which perhaps pertains only to a limited number of people, lies in the way in which it lovingly portrays the life of books.
As you may know, the film revolves around Mr Morris Lessmore. Sitting on a balcony of a townhouse in New Orleans, he is busy writing, when suddenly a storm arises. After the city has been destroyed and the storm has passed, he roams through the streets, following a paper trail of book pages that leads him to a country house occupied by flying books. He takes the care of these books upon himself; like a surgeon, for instance, he repairs the pages of an old edition of Jules Verne's De la Terre à la lune, which is revived only once he begins to peruse its pages. He also returns to the writing of his memoirs and reads from these to his books. Once old age is upon him, he himself disappears, but his own book comes to life, finding shelter in the library.
At first sight, this film is obviously an allegory of the significance of books: people can bring books to life, and books can give life meaning. This is an old adage, which is reflected in the title of the (Dutch) handbook that I use in my introductory course on literary theory, The Life of Texts. But I think that the film appeals to me not because it reminds me of my professional duties, but because it so lovingly portrays the figure of the bibliophile. Walter Benjamin describes this figure as follows:
There are few descriptions that better express the passion for books of the true bibliophile (although Stefan Zweig's Mendel, the Bibliophile certainly comes close). Carl Spitzweg's painting is, admittedly, far from flattering, and in no way resembles that of Mr Lessmore (whose appearance is based on Buster Keaton). And one might object that Mr Lessmore shows traits that are foreign to Benjamin's book collector: he enjoys lending his books, for one. But the ideas behind Benjamin's portrait are vividly present. The facade of Mr Lessmore's house is sculptured in the form of books; the genii that Benjamin speaks of are personified. The most important resemblance, however, is arguably the way in which the film takes its cue from Benjamin's analysis of the book collector's inspiration:
Jede Leidenschaft grenzt ja ans Chaos, die sammlerische aber an das der Erinnerungen Doch ich will mehr sagen: Zufall, Schicksal, die das Vergangene vor meinem Blick durchfärben, sie sind zugleich in dem gewohnten Durcheinander dieser Bücher sinnenfällig da.
[Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories. More than that: the chance, the fate, that suffuse the past before my eyes are conspicuously present in the accustomed confusion of these books].
Benjamin was writing in the buildup to the Second World War and from the point of view of a Jewish German: his was an uprooted perspective, one of exile, from which the portability of his book collection offered at least a sense of home. This perspective can be glimpsed at the beginning of the film. It is, at first sight, curious why the events of the story are set in motion by the catastrophic passing of Hurricane Katrina. Interpreting the film through the lens afforded by Benjamin's essay, however, it becomes clear that - like the persecution of Jews under the Third Reich - we are dealing with a catastrophe that cannot be forgotten. By remembering collective traumas in books, the film seems to say, can we begin to heal the wounds that they have made.
Although I do not intend this page to become a fully-fledged blog, it occurred to me that whoever is visiting this website might like to have an idea of the more fugitive things that are happening in my (academic) life. So, to get this ball rolling, I'd like to announce that my interview with J. Hillis Miller is now available on YouTube, in English and with Dutch subtitles. I have written a short notice about the history and form of this film for The Bee (in English) and Culture Weekly (Dutch). I'd be thrilled to hear your questions and observations.