Joseph Bisat MarshallThe Fragmentary Corpus2014

The following text is an accompaniment to a project completed during my time at Central Saint Martins. It is a design rationale, compiled from notes written to myself at the time. Much of it formed the basis of later work.

‘Participating at once of fiction and theory, pseudonymical fantasising constitutes a fragmentary and unfinished corpus very analogical to the dionysiac corpus of book-fragments and fragments of a book that Nietzsche signs by a single name... This fantasising has meaning only in relation to the subjectivity of a “private thinker” who, at odds with all social order, reveals himself as essentially suspect: guilty, not guilty?’ — Jean-Noel Vuarnet

The Greek gods, Apollo and Dionysus, give their names to a philosophic and literary concept most notably developed by Friedrich Nietzsche in the 19th century. Apollo and Dionysus represent opposing forces of order and chaos: the god of intellectual pursuits and prophecy, and the god of revel, ecstasy and ritual madness. In his The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche theorised Greek tragedy as the space where order and chaos were inextricably combined.

This project is an exploration of Apollonian and Dionysia, positioning them as a model for recognising aspects inherent in design. I have taken the Greek trilogy, The Oresteia as a means of exploring these concepts further and redesigned Robert Fagles English translation into four books that enforce the enactment of the performance as it was originally intended.

The principles of Apollo and Dionysus and Nietzsche’s theory of duality

The concept of the Apollonian and Dionysian is based on dichotomy. Nietzsche theorised that a development of art, and by extension an understanding of life, is bound to the duality of these two forces that must be combined. The names he gives to them are borrowed from the Greeks who ‘gave a clear voice to the profound secret teachings of their contemplative art, not in ideas, but in the powerfully clear forms of their divine world’. Nietzsche attempts to understand what it means to be human. He turns to the Greek gods because even in their divinity, they remain a perfect illustration of human life.

Ancient Greek ideals were based on discovery; enlightenment through empirical experimentation and the sum of combined knowledge. They situated the human mind and body in the center of this discovery and celebrated its existence. Unlike Western European ideas of religion that are built on transcendence, the Greeks created gods that were divine but utterly human in their characteristics. In the Genesis myth, God asks of Adam ‘who told you that you were naked?’ and with it, the idea that we should be ashamed of ourselves was born. In Greek mythology, according to Hesiod’s Theogony, Prometheus steals fire from heaven that had been taken in anger from humanity by Zeus. He returns it back to his beloved mortal man and in retaliation, an enraged Zeus sends the first woman Pandora, bearing a jar containing evil, pain and death, to live on earth. Whatever it is that is divine, lives in us; we are as good as the gods and the gods are as capricious, foolish, jealous and flawed as we are. It is the reason why mythology is relevant today and why it is such an appropriate vessel for a philosophy that deals with human life.

Apollo was handsome and youthful. He was the god of intellect, music, prophecy, healing and light. In his horse-drawn chariot of fire, he would drive the sun across the sky each morning and give light to the world. Apollonian principles are ones of order and individualism, expressed most clearly through the plastic arts that he resided over. Painting and sculpture, which are representations of the world, are also fantastical and provide an escape from the cruel realities of life, like a dream.

Dionysus, the god of wine, revel, ritual madness and ecstasy had no such concerns with representations. He was entirely hedonistic, his procession (thiasus), made up of wild, naked women (maenads) and bearded satyrs flaunting huge erect penises, followed him in frenzied ecstasy. Dionysian principles are in touch with the blissful, chaotic and cruel realities of nature to a point where the self is relinquished and one can revel in a collective, primal and animalistic state.

Neither one of these forms is the reality of life. Nietzsche suggests that a genuine understanding of the world and ourselves can be found in the duality of Apollo and Dionysus ‘just as reproduction depends upon the duality of the sexes, their continuing strife and only periodically occurring reconciliation’. Such Dionysian instinctive states as desire, sexual lust and appetite are made bearable by the order inscribed by Apollonian harmony, logic, rhetoric and reason. In return they are given ‘life’.

The relationship with tragedy

Tragedies were inextricably linked to the gods and in particular Dionysus. They were not a performance in the way that we would consider modern theatre, rather they were rituals devoted to the gods. They took place on sacred ground that surrounded an alter on which a statue of the god stood, directly in the centre of the theatre. Notably, they took place in ancient Athens at the Theatre of Dionysus during the great Dionysia, a festival held in his honour.

The origin of Greek tragedy is an unresolved area of study. The most reliable source of information comes from Aristotle’s Poetics. Here, he explains that tragedy was originally an improvisation performed by those who led the dithyramb (a hymn sung and danced in honour of Dionysus). The performances were burlesque in nature and included elements of satyr. A chorus sang and danced accompanied by an aulos, worshiping Dionysus in their depiction of events from his life. Tragedy developed significantly once the performances were written down. They became more serious in their tone and chorus was combined with spoken parts – the idea of character was born. Satyr plays now accompanied the tragedies as a kind of audience catharsis. They were comedies, full of explicit sexuality, crude jokes and drunkenness.

The Dionysia tragedies at this point (circa 500 BC) were performed as part of a competition. Aeschylus is credited with the creation of the trilogy, which consisted of three tragedies as part of a single narrative. This became the basic form of the contest whereby playwrights submitted a trilogy of tragedies and an accompanying satyr play.

Nietzsche suggested that the Greek civilisation was enacting the story of its own beginnings through tragic drama, where both Apollo and Dionysus were embraced. In tragedy, Dionysian principles exposed man to the terror and absurdity of existence and the Apollonian offered man salvation by giving tangible, ordered form to the shapeless chaos.

The Oresteia

The Oresteia illustrates various forms of opposition in a very explicit way. It was written by Aeschylus, the first of the three known tragedians including Sophocles and Euripides. It consists of the tragedies Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and Eumenides and was accompanied by the satyr play Proteus, which unfortunately has not survived. First performed at the Dionysia in 458 BC, The Oresteia won first prize – today it is the only surviving trilogy.

The story begins shortly after the fall of Troy in the Trojan War, however it has its background in the generation before. Two brothers, descendants of Zeus, Atreus and Thyestes contend for the throne of Argos. In their rivalry, Thyestes seduces the wife of Atreus and is subsequently driven out of Argos, leaving Atreus to establish himself as the sole king. Years later, Thyestes returns to Argos. Atreus pretends to forgive his brother but spitefully kills his two young sons. He slices their bodies into unrecognisable pieces and serves it to their father at the banquet being held in honour of his return. When Thyestes learns of the horrifying plot, he flees the city with his remaining child, Aegisthus, and curses Atreus and all his descendants.

Agamemnon, Atreus’ son, inherits the throne when his father dies. He marries Clytaemestra, the daughter of the king of Sparta, and they have three children. His brother, Menelaus, marries Helen of Sparta, the sister of Clytaemnestra.

Helen was renowned as the most beautiful woman in the world. When the son of the King of Troy, Paris, visits Sparta, he seduces Helen and brings her back to Troy. The Kings of Greece, who had all once been the suitors of Helen, had made a pact to accept, without issue, her choice of husband and to aid him against anyone that might attempt to steal her. The Kings come to Menelaus’ aid and rally behind their leader Agamemnon, who rules the largest contingent.

The forces assemble at Aulis, but are unable to cross the sea because of treacherous weather. It is decreed by the soothsayer Calchas that the goddess Artemis must be appeased by sacrificing Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigena and then they would be safe to sail the sea. Agamemnon is persuaded by the kings of Greece to obey and ask Clytaemnestra to send their daughter to him, pretending that she was to be married to Achilles, the greatest Greek hero. Iphigena is sacrificed and the sea becomes calm.

Whilst the Greeks lay siege to Troy, Aegisthus returns to Argos where he finds a bitter Clytaemnestra, who has grown to hate her husband. Aegisthus and Clytaemnestra become lovers and conspire together to murder Agamemnon as revenge for the wrong he had done to each of them.

The Oresteia begins with the return of Agamemnon from the ten yearlong siege of Troy. The daughter of the King of Troy, Cassandra, who he has claimed as his latest concubine, accompanies him. Clytaemnestra, unable to bear her hatred, murders Agamemnon whilst he bathes. She finds Cassandra and also murders her.

In The Libation Bearers, which is set several years later, the son of Agamemnon, Orestes, returns to Argos where, upon the orders and threats of the god Apollo, he plots to kill his mother and her lover Aegisthus. Upon the grave of his father, he meets his sister Electra who has been sent by Clytaemnestra to bring libations to Agamemnon in the hope that it will quell the source of her unbearable dreams. They pray for the aid of Agamemnon in their quest for vengeance.

The Chorus urges the pair to remain focused on the present and to act upon their anger and hatred. Orestes plots to murder Aegisthus on the throne by entering the palace in disguise. When he knocks on the door, Clytaemnestra answers and so he is forced to fabricate his identity as a man bringing news of Orestes’ death.

Lamenting, Clytaemnestra sends for Aegisthus and his bodyguard. The Chorus intercepts the message, imploring him to go to Clytaemnestra alone, which he does. He returns to the palace where he meets Orestes. Alarmed at the sudden commotion, Clytaemnestra appears in the palace, finding Orestes standing over the fallen body of her lover. In an advance to the climax of The Libation Bearers, Orestes turns to enact the same revenge upon his mother. She bears her breasts and implores him to remember the bond of mother and child.

Orestes’ companion, Pylades reminds him of Apollo’s orders. Regaining his resolve, Orestes stabs Clytaemnestra before wrapping the two bodies in the shroud in which Agamemnon was killed. Orestes’ actions cause him to fall victim to the Furies, deities of vengeance, that pursue him, tormenting him for a terrible act of sacrilege. They pursue him as he flees to Delphi, seeking refuge from Apollo. The Chorus despair at the continued bloodshed that should have ended when Orestes’ vengeance was satisfied.

The Eumenides begins with Orestes’ continual torture by the Furies, now a few days since his act of matricide. He travels to Athens where he seeks the mercy of the goddess Athene. She decrees that a trial must be held to determine the fate of Orestes. When the jurors are unable to come to a conclusion, she herself casts the deciding vote and Orestes is acquitted. Athene then offers a position of honour in her cult to the Furies, who had threatened her with vengeance. They accept this offer and are transformed into benevolent spirits, the Eumenides.

The plays consist of multiple oppositions and contrasts. Characters move between darkness and light, rage and self-governance, primitive ritual and civilised institution. Mirroring a change in Athenian society at the time, the plays also explore a shift in the justice system that ultimately allowed the accused a fair trial. The Furies were governed by ancient law that required blood to be paid for with more blood – it was a tribal and chaotic governance that perpetuated violence. In The Oresteia, Orestes is given a trial of reason and rhetoric in Athene’s hope for a progressive society – we see clearly the intermingling notions of order and chaos, framed by the vivid images of the Greek gods.

The Fragmentary Corpus

I take the title of this project, The Fragmentary Corpus, from a quote by Vuarnet in Le Philosophe-artiste: ‘Participating at once of fiction and theory, pseudonymical fantasising constitutes a fragmentary and unfinished corpus very analogical to the dionysiac corpus of book-fragments and fragments of a book that Nietzsche signs by a single name... This fantasising has meaning only in relation to the subjectivity of a “private thinker” who, at odds with all social order, reveals himself as essentially suspect: guilty, not guilty?’ It is in reference to authors’ use of pseudonyms and is used by Michel Surya in George Bataille: An Intellectual Biography, to suggest reason for Bataille’s ‘abstraction to the confession of the name’.

The quote provides an important link between my work on authorship and this project. The Fragmentary Corpus is, in many ways, a continuation of De Profundis and could plausibly be used to explore the subject of authorship in more depth. Historically, the transgressive reality of text requires the attribution of a name that can be held responsible for its content. Bataille wrote under the fictitious names of characters that had no affiliation to his own – they had no attribution to a life, they were ‘dead’ names. So the ‘corpus’ created by fragments of multiple authors – or, in the quote’s reference to Nietzsche, collated fragments of multiple writings assigned to a single author (as in his The Will to Power, which was posthumously formed from Nietzsche’s notes) – becomes increasingly difficult to assign authorship (or guilt) to.

What I like so much about the quote is that it references discussions of authorship that I have explored elsewhere, whilst also introducing a new subject that became the basis of this work. Vuarnet likens the result of ‘pseudonymical fantasising’ to that of Dionysian fragments in the form of the book. It need not be a book in order for it to be discussed in relation to design, but perhaps here he provides a way in which the Dionysian enters the design process and its material result.

Interestingly, ‘pseudonymical fantasising’ is much the same as wearing a mask. Bataille writes in Le Masqué: ‘When what is human is masked, there is no longer anything present but the animality of death’. He adds, ‘The mask is chaos become flesh. It is present before me like a semblance of myself [semblable], and this semblance, which stares at me, has taken on the figure of my own death’. Tragedies were performed wearing physical masks – unauthored faces were able to move between the individual roles described by unique voices and movements, to the selfless states of the Choruses, like that of the frenzied chaos of the beautiful, terrifying furies.

Apollonian and Dionysian duality as a model for understanding design

I refer to the concept as a ‘model’ to suggest that it makes no attempt at being a definitive answer to reality. At best, philosophy is humble in its aspirations of improved, and not complete, understanding. I deploy the Apollonian and the Dionysian concepts as one of the many interesting ways of thinking about design, one that might be useful to my and somebody else’s personal progression, and in some small way, contribute to the progression of the subject.

The Apollonian and Dionysian concept cannot be thought of as being instructional because the designer cannot hope to have such control over it. I am suggesting that Apollonian and Dionysian principles are present in design, and where they are present in the correct proportions, design connects to every part of us and yields meaningful, worthwhile experience. The recognition of the balance is most important. It would be a mistake to talk about the two forces as ingredients to be used at the designer’s pleasure because in reality, Apollo and Dionysus constitute a false dichotomy; neither one can function independently. The Apollonian has no collective understanding and no connection. The Dionysian, by definition, is subsided by the Apollonian the moment it is brought into the conscious – to talk about it or even to think about it redoubles the notion into a state of representation and order.

I have previously written about this indescribable ‘extra-representation’, naming it ‘the ineffable narrative’. We cannot design it, rather we design the situations that might enact it. An example of this would be the publishers Visual Editions, who in their material work, manage to tread an invisible line between ordered convention that gives access, and an indescribable, gut pleasure that arises from something that just in some way connects to us; whether that is the chaotic disorder of pages as in the unbound Composition No. 1, the deep emotion evoked by a solid, printed colour as in the black pages of Tristram Shandy, or the sensual touch given to any tangible surface.

I think that it works to imagine the Apollonian and Dionysian as either end of an infinitely long scale. The designer can never find himself or herself at one end or the other, instead they move endlessly between the two in search of the single, perfect point.

Significant design decisions

In theory, Apollonian and Dionysian duality can not be represented consciously through the act of designing, but there are ways to attempt an enactment of the balance between them, which becomes visible in the design. The text, which is my content, already does this. There is the Apollonian order present in language and in the representational forms of letters on a page. Yet the text does not belong to an author, we each find meaning and attachment closer to Dionysus in the space around the words – or we do not – it might mean nothing to us, connecting to nothing below the surface. As it happens, the words of The Oresteia speak to me in a way that resonates deeply. I am awed by the beauty of the epic language; so the challenge became designing The Oresteia to do the same thing.

The form of a book was not a default decision. I thought at first that the only thing suitable to evoke Apollonian and Dionysian duality was as the trilogy was intended, through staged performance. I considered the possibilities of designing such a performance but kept returning to the idea of a book because of a single nagging notion that I wanted to address: everything about the canon of book design shifts it towards the Apollonian. There are chronological pages of prescribed size, representations of language in letterforms, a finite duration between front cover and back. Yet there are many books that are not over-weighted towards the Apollonian. De Profundis was designed with this concept in mind and attempts to break through the limitations of the book as an Apollonian object by promoting experience as the subject of its design. Dionysus resides in the performance inherent in the design – in the tearing open of pages and the interaction between audience and content. I intended The Oresteia to be a continuation of the parts most successful in De Profundis.

Enacting performance

Books are inherently performative and there are even parallels that can be drawn between books and theatre. I wanted to push this idea further by not offering experience but forcing it. This project is not about re-imagining the concepts of Ancient Athenian culture in a way that might be useful to us, it is about viewing the concepts in the way that they were intended, as ones that are still perfectly relevant. For this reason I chose to force a kind of performance of The Oresteia that was much the same as it was some 2500 years ago, in exploration of the possibilities of a book.

Tragedy was originally performed by a very limited number of actors. The all male cast of Aeschylus’ plays consisted of no more than three principle actors alongside a chorus and their leader. Because of this, actors were required to perform multiple roles, often switching characters across very short dialogue and even playing the interaction between two or more of their own characters.

One of the main features of my design is the splitting of characters into four books of the same narrative. There are too many characters for it to have been practical to allow each of them their own book and this would have been misleading in terms of a realistic portrayal of the original performance. Scholars are generally divided on the assigning of roles to each actor in the trilogy, though a particular study by C. W. Marshall proved to be extremely helpful. In his essay Casting the Oresteia, he collates multiple suggestions as to the assignment of roles from notable scholars and uses them to form what he explains is the most likely distribution. The casting of the tragedies was an important contributor to narrative. Amy Rebecca Cohen, in her Role Doubling as a Dramatic Technique in Greek Tragedy, writes: ‘In the same way that he used his words to unify the trilogy thematically, Aeschylus used doubling as a tool to unify his trilogy physically and dramatically.’ Duplicate roles gave the ancient audience an impression of instability; a narrative device that is unused in modern theatre, where each character is represented by their own actor. In my design, each of the four books belongs to an actor that are assigned to characters according to Marshall’s proposed casting.

Unlike a script, where an actor receives the lines of all characters, which they can follow along with their own dialogue, I removed any dialogue that is not the actors’ own. The result is four books where the majority of content is invisible. Pages might turn and turn without there being any words at all. I considered the reality of my audience: either a single person reads the trilogy, or multiple people read it by assigning books to each person. By removing the words of the other characters from each book, both situations are forced into a state of vivid performance. The single reader must lay the four books in their vicinity – they themselves become designers or directors that must decide upon the physical arrangement of the elements in their control. The narrative is removed from the limitations of the page and becomes something spatial. Multiple readers must do the same, ensuring suitable positions for interacting with each other. But they must also follow the narrative intently, syncing themselves with the rhythms of the language or else they will become lost. There are no page numbers, the performer cannot dip in and out as you might typically do in a publication; only the line numbers remain as the single ordering factor. I was reminded of the origins of tragedy according to Aristotle – the plays embraced improvisation, utilising a sense of urgency and unknown excitement.

Line numbers as the Apollonian order amongst chaos

The conventional form of the book is weighted as Apollonian because of its elements of order (page numbers are an example of this). It is typically introverted; the reader has an individual experience as they interact privately with the object. By stripping the book of the safety of its page numbers, a bit more chaos is allowed and the scale shifts towards the Dionysian. It is forced into a larger space where the individual becomes less and less relevant.

Originally, I intended to shift the duality further towards the Dionysian by removing the binding entirely. This would have resulted in complete chaos; not only would the reader be required to keep track of the narrative, they would also be required to keep track of the physical pages. They would be forced to handle the pages carefully, orderly, existing always on the edge of disaster. However, it became more interesting to me to keep the books conventionally bound. Returning to the Vuarnet quote, I wanted the work to constitute a fragmentary corpus, which is possible even within a bound publication (as Nietzsche’s The Will to Power). In a way, the binding fixes the work as distinct elements; when the pages are loose, they could plausibly be added to or taken away and the work would not be fragmented so much as transient.

Cageon principles of duration

John Cage theorised duration as being the only thing shared by sound and silence. In relation to visual design, this can be thought of as element and space. The designer dictates the relationship between the two, as does the musician, the dancer, the photographer, the writer. Design governs the structure of the object or the performance, which is as important as the content it holds. Within this metaphor, each page in the design becomes a musical score, governed by both space and time. The line numbers are continuous and rhythmic, dictating the intervals in which everything else may act; they are Apollo, standing firmly-grounded with the procession of Dionysus dancing in ecstasy around him.

Space and typography

The books are set in Sabon, an old style typeface designed by Jan Tschicold in the mid to late 60s. There is no typeface directly, historically related to Ancient Greece or tragedy and so I chose one that felt appropriate as a book type, suitable in its legibility and classic style. While considering the setting of the type in the particular edition of The Oresteia that I was working with, I was struck by the excessive use of indents and seemingly odd arrangements of various lines. The arrangements became clearer upon closer inspection of rhythms that are indicated by changes in line length and their positioning on the page.

The setting of the type in the Penguin Classics edition is not particularly good and so I was required to make certain decisions about text for reasons of consistency. However, on the whole, I have kept the text in the visual arrangement that I found it. Robert Fagles’ translation of the text is bound to his decisions in format; without re-translating, it would be impossible to alter much more without interrupting meaning. The effect of the odd indents is one of near visual chaos, which I welcomed happily.

Cover design

I knew that I wanted the covers to emphasise the idea of a single body of work that is fragmented, and so I arrived at the idea of splitting a single image into four. It is one of the things that tie these otherwise separate pieces together. My instinct was to use a 19th century painting, perhaps Pre-Raphaelite, although at first this was an idea I battled with because of its clear association with the Apollonian; I wanted something that was more explicit in terms of duality. I remembered one of the most famous paintings completed in response to The Oresteia, William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s, Orestes Pursued by the Furies. I love and hate this painting. It was completed in 1862 and is an example of academic style. It depicts Orestes being tormented by the horror of the Furies; this carefully balanced composition, with its intense realism and flawlessly rendered surface is starkly conservative; it is a great representation of the impossibility of portraying Dionysus through plastic art.


The Fragmentary Corpus, 200 x 350mm, 2014

The Fragmentary Corpus, 200 x 350mm, 2014