Aby Warburg’s tale

Now I will recount the true and tragic tale of Aby Warburg (1886-1929), whose bibliomaniacal obsession with myth, icon, symbol, and meaning across cultures and through the ages led to his pyschic disintegration.

Aby Warburg reading

Warburg concentrating, looking a shade like Proust.

He was born in Hamburg on 13 June 1866, the eldest son of a Jewish banker. In his early youth he had taken consolation in the illustrations of Balzac’s novels and ‘devoured books “full of stories about Red Indians.” These images and adventures offered him, he was later to recall, “a means of withdrawing from a depressing reality in which I was quite helpless.” ‘ He became an obsessive reader of every bit of text that came into his ken.

On his thirteenth birthday, eschewing religious orthodoxy and business, the only options he felt were open to him, he exchanged his birthright for a singular promise: that Max, his brother, a year younger then Aby, would buy him all the books he ever wanted. The study of ancient Greece and Rome, of Renaissance and Native American culture, and of Bhuddist religion would be for Aby an escape from the pressure of his father’s expectations for him. In the end, he found himself ‘unable to accept the constraints of any one discipline or school of thought.’

The fantastic library in his house on the Heilwigstrasse in Hamburg used a ‘uniquely idiosyncratic cataloguing system,’ and the placement of its shelves took a remarkable form–that of an ellipse, or oval, such that the library looped back, closed back on itself. Following Warburg’s conception of the universe, books on philosophy were set next to those on astrology, magic and folklore, and art compendiums rubbed covers with works of literature and religion. Manuals on language were placed next to volumes of theology, poetry and art. ‘As Warburg imagined it, a library was above all an accumulation of associations, each association breeding a new image or text to be associated, until the associations returned the reader to the first page.’ ‘While poring through antiquarian catalogues, he would jot down on small cards the titles that caught his attention, accompanied by dense commentaries in what he called his “thick eel-gruel style,” filing them in separate boxes according to a complicated (and variable) system.’ (I find it hard not to think of Walter Benjamin’s methods for the composition of The Arcades Project upon reading this description.) Believing new mechanical cataloguing methods inferior to ‘the much more scholarly familiarity which is gained by browsing,’ Warburg articulated the ‘law of the good neighbour’: The book with which one was familiar was not, in most cases, the book one needed. It was the unknown neighbour on the shelf that contained the vital information, even though one not might guess this from the title.

Warburg library good

Warburg’s library, reconstructed; image from the title page of A. Manguel’s The Library at Night.

In 1920, Warburg’s private library was opened to scholars. This plan had been set for 1914, but was derailed by the war. Warburg’s nervous state worsened with this development whereby he ‘began to intuit a bleak concordance between his mental state and the state of the world.’ In 1920, the year his library was opened,  he entered the famous clinic of the Swiss dectors Otto and Ludwig Binswanger in Kreuzlingen and remained there for four years in slow recovery, trying ‘to put together his scattered mind, fragmented as it was into thousands of images and piecemeal notes.’

Instrumental to Warburg’s slow but eventual, if not total, recovery was the use of large wooden panels upon which Warburg could recombine the images and pictures which held his fascination by affixing them with pins to stretched black hessian covering the standing panels. This ‘unfinished and unfinishable’ project was the great iconographic sequence he called Mnemosyne.

Warburg panel

One of Warburg’s Mnemosyne panels

To Warburg, these words, testament to his struggle, are attributed:

‘These images and words are intended as help for those who come after me in their attempt to achieve clarity and thus to overcome the tragic tension between instinctive magic and discursive logic. They are the confessions of an (incurable) schizoid, deposited in the archives of mental healers.’

(Warburg’s story is recounted in Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night, “The Library as Mind” (Yale UP, 2006; ps. 192-212). This post paraphrases and used direct quotations from Manguel.)

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