Katarzyna Bazarnik „Liberature – What’s in a Name”
Liberature – What’s in a Name
... there is, at present, no real 'field' in the humanities that studies the relations of
verbal and visual arts, no 'iconology' that studies the problem of perceptual,
conceptual, verbal, and graphic images in a unified way...
W. J. T. Mitchell, Iconology. Image, Text, Ideology
Zenon Fajfer ends his essay with a statement that terminological questions are, in fact, of secondary
importance, because what really counts is the artistic practice. However, the fact that he did coin this
new term, his insistence on using it and his efforts to promote it indicate that something more than
mere terminology must be at stake here.
Wittgenstein, Fajfer's favourite philosopher, stated that “the limits of my language mean the
limits of my world”, suggesting that that which does not have a name does not exist, at least within
“my world”, which means the world of theoretical reflection on literature. Thus to name, to define,
would mean to discover, to expand boundaries in order to include within them that which has been
named. Significantly, works classified by Fajfer and myself as liberary are predominantly those that
have usually been relegated to the margins of literature, described as its extreme, regarded as
eccentric, experimental, and extravagant, the triple “ex-” emphasising their exclusion from the realm
of “literature proper”. The etymology of “extravagant” illuminates this point: to be extravagant means
to wander beyond; and these works indeed dare to wander beyond, into the sphere of visual excess. By
doing so they trespass conventional expectations, expose the limitations and insufficiency of existing
theories and, perhaps, also an illusionary nature of the border between literature and plastic arts.
These works have been perceived as strange, impure, and hybrid, since they enter the realm of
literature's Other: the spatial and visual arts, and incorporate its features. So liberature may be seen as
another attempt at a synthesis of arts, and, possibly, liberating the artists and their work from
misleading labels and suffocating constraints of critical classifications (quite ironically, though,
because it offers yet another terminological pigeonhole). Fajfer wants to see it as a kind of total
literature in which the text and the book in its materiality form an organic whole. The term draws on
the Latin word liber, meaning a book, because in the liberary work the form of the book is of
fundamental importance. The physical space of the book (and in the case of shorter pieces, for
example, the space of the page) is not a neutral container for words, but belongs to the work and is a
medium of artistic communication. Proportions and numerical values associated with the format, the
number of pages, words, and verses may also be meaningful. Every tiniest element of the liberary
work may carry the meaning. And its shape, structure, layout, and the material the book is made of
may be of any kind, in accordance with the other Latin meaning of liber. Thus it is a project of the
total work, which is about a conscious use of the materiality of literature – the materiality of the letter,
the word, the sentence and the space of the book, about integrating the text and the image and
arranging them within a meaningful space.
However, despite the emphasis on careful editing and design, liberature does not have
anything in common with the so-called beautiful book (of the kind collected by bibliophiles) or the
common, though lavishly illustrated book. The similarity is purely superficial. Published with
collectors in mind, such bibliophile editions serve to show off the skills and ingenuity of the editor,
designer, printer, and bookbinder, and are often remote from the original intention of the author.
Whereas the liberary work is an embodiment of its author’s uniform vision in which all extra-verbal
elements and departures from the editorial conventions are justified by literary reasons. B. S. Johnson,
a British novelist, one of the key figures in the history of liberature, emphasised this, explaining that
every departure from conventions was motivated by his desire to say something through form (21).
And the very presence of illustrations, beautiful paper or a typeface more elaborate that usual does not
suffice to call a work liberary; these elements must constitute an organic part of the work, and not
serve as its ornaments.
Equally superficial is liberature's similarity to the so-called artistic or artist’s book, although
some liberary works have definitely a value as works of visual arts. The fundamental difference
between the book treated as the artefact of fine arts and the liberary book manifests itself in the
attitude to the text: in the former the word (if it appears at all) is dependent on the book, that is, the
artist's graphic vision dictates its shape and place in the book, whereas in liberature the book is
subservient to the word – the meaning of the text dominates and determines the shape and structure of
To insist on the term “liberature” is also the matter of critical political correctness. “The artist's
book” locates the work in the sphere of fine and graphic arts, where it falls into oblivion, perceived as
an alien in the world of literature, thus ignored by readers and literary critics, and never properly
appreciated during exhibitions in galleries, for, although we live in the age of ubiquitous Text, we do
not actually read works of visual arts. Such a work is perceived as a kind of sculpture or installation
and interpreted in terms of visual arts. On the other hand, “experimental” used in reference to a literary
work is slightly derogatory and misleading; it implies imperfection, something unfinished or
unaccomplished, and does not point to the essence of innovative devices that are connected with the
material medium. Besides, I agree with B. S. Johnson that writers' experiments end up in a wastepaper
basket, and the reader is faced with a finished work, which may but does not have to be a failure (21).
“Extravagant” and “eccentric”, in turn, invite laughter, scorn, or a shrug of the shoulders. Numerous
liberary or protoliberary works have been perceived as frivolous literary games, hoaxes, or a proof of
their author's unstable mind, as was the case with, e.g., Joyce's Finnegans Wake. But their eccentricity
and playfulness remind us of the jester whose mischief and wit provided relief from tight constraints
of the etiquette and subverted the established order. Like jesters, liberary and protoliberary works have
been those troublemakers that disturbed the self-satisfied well-being of literary theoreticians. So to
define liberature would mean to question the nature and status of literature, and perhaps, consequently,
to redefine it. If liberature does not belong to fine arts, but, as Fajfer wants it, is a separate literary
genre, it would serve to relocate a group of marginal, eccentric works closer to the centre, to reclaim
some of them for literature, and, ultimately, to reread history of literature from a new perspective. It
would also provide more adequate tools for analysis of these work. Such tools should account for the
materiality of writing and embrace the study of typography, visual perception, spatial structure, and
image analysis, to name only a few. At the same time, the study of liberature would acknowledge the
extraneous character of the studied works in terms of their generic distinctness.
In fact, some critical reflections have anticipated this; Mallarmé is the first name that springs
to mind. Michel Butor is another who foresaw that the book was soon to reveal its covert potential as
objet d'art. And to give yet another example, in his excellent biography of Blake, Peter Ackroyd notes
that critics have made one fundamental mistake in approaching the work of the great visionary by
overlooking the fact that his poems are not like, e.g., lyrical ballads, but constitute a distinct kind of
works in which words are but one of several elements of an organic, indivisible whole. Due to their
visual integrity these “poems” acquire the status of extraordinary works of art that elude traditional
methods of interpretation (140-1). Ackroyd clearly identifies a unique and distinct nature of Blake's
works that are neither merely pictures nor merely poems and recognises the need for a more adequate
way of reading that would account for the complex nature of Blake's art.
Distinguishing a new literary genre could enhance research on such complex works. The fact
that in its very short lifetime Fajfer's proposition has met with considerable and friendly response from
academic and artistic circles testifies to the need for a more integrative approach to the literary work.
Perhaps the study of liberature could be that “literary iconology” postulated by W. J. T. Mitchell in his
Iconology. Image, Text, Ideology (155), in which the literary work would appear to us, to use Joyce's
coinage from Finnegans Wake, as a “verbivocovisual polyhedron of scripture” (341.18, 107.08).
Ackroyd, Peter. Blake. Poznań: Zysk i S-ka, 2001.
Fajfer, Zenon. “Liberatura. Aneks do słownika terminów literackich”. Dekada Literacka 5/6
(153/154), 30 VI 1999 Kraków, pp. 8-9.
Johnson, B. S. Aren't You Rather Young to Be Writing Your Memoirs? London: Hutchinson, 1973.
Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake. London: Faber, 1989.
Mitchell, W. J. T. Iconology. Image, Text, Ideology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
NOTE: This essay was published in Liberature by Katarzyna Bazarnik and Zenon Fajfer, Artpartner: Kraków 2005.