10 Years of Berfrois!
An Aluminium Anniversary
George Thomason liked to collect and he liked to read. From his stall in the cobblestoned courtyard of St. Paul’s Cathedral, the 17th century bookseller compiled an unprecedented assemblage of printed ephemera; tracts, sermons, broadsheets, quartos, manifestos and pamphlets all composed Thomason’s library, as he proved himself a more prodigious book-buyer than bookseller. Thomason spent two decades in the midst of England’s most tumultuous century compulsively building an archive of literature produced by dozens of different political and religious factions.
Underneath the spire of St. Paul’s (which, pre-fire, had yet to be replaced by Christopher Wren’s magnificent dome), Thomason purchased writings both Royalist and Parliamentarian; Laudian and Puritan; orthodox and heretical. Works as varied as Gerard Winstanley’s socialist tract The True Leveller’s Standard Advanced and the monarchical hagiography Eikon Basilike; theology as doctrinaire as Thomas Edwards’ Gangraena and Ephraim Pagitt’s Heresiography, and as spiritually anarchistic as Laurence Clarkson’s A Single Eye, All Light, No Darkness and Abiezzer Coppe’s A Fiery Flying Roll. From that last book came one of the most intestinally accurate portrayals of what it means to be possessed by the muse, when Coppe wrote “And behold, I writ, and lo a hand was sent to me, and a roll of a book was therein and the roll was thrust into my mouth; and I eat it up, and filled my bowels with it… it lay broiling, and burning in my stomack, till I brought it forth in this forme.” If the physical manifestation of the muse is a type of divine shit, than Thomason was happily rolling in it.
Such unprecedented freedom of speech was facilitated by both the collapse of the licensing laws, and the chaos engendered in civil war and regicide. From 1641 until his death in that demonic year of 1666 (when St. Paul’s finally lost its spire), Thomason would collect over 20,000 publications, which would be bound into some two thousand volumes, now held at the British Library’s red-brick modernist bunker on Euston Road, kept within that massive, transparent glass cube that sits like a robot’s heart at the center of the building. Much of what we know of that century, arguably the most fertile period of political and religious thought for the English-speaking peoples, is due to Thomason’s steadfast commitment to collection. An era in which both printing technology and the breakdown of previous social, cultural, religious, political, and economic systems allowed for a ferment in transcendent ideas, but also what my English friends might call bollocks. For Thomason there was virtue in collecting everything, for as one of those books he purchased, John Milton’s 1644 paeon in favor of free speech Areopagitica puts it, “Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are.” More inspiring than Coppe’s fecal metaphor, if similarly biological.
The 17th century was a different place from today of course; after all, it was an era in which England was split into dozens of different factions, when Westminster was embroiled in political disagreement over what role the nation should play in Europe, when there were painful question’s about the country’s conduct towards Ireland, and where the monarch arbitrarily dissolved Parliament. Of course, my tongue is firmly in cheek, even if I’m constitutionally unable to have an upper-lip that’s particularly stiff, and yet I’ve made a middling career out of drawing historical parallels based on far less. But comparisons of Boris Johnson to Charles I aren’t as interesting as the more general observations about what our century shares with that long-ago time, as regards communication, technology, the relationship between media and truth, and most importantly how we separate the wheat from the chaff, the transcendent from the bollocks.
If the 17th century was an age in which things fall apart, and where chaos paradoxically allowed for not just disunion, but also creative, regenerative, and subversive responses to the emerging modern diseases of authoritarianism and fundamentalism, positivism and capitalism, then we’re faced with a similar issue today. Print allowed for an unprecedented array of texts, but in the twenty-first century Thomason would have to be on the Internet rather than St. Paul’s courtyard. Or maybe just in Camden Town.
Because 2009 was the year which saw the founding of Berfrois, a site that’s name is as hard to pronounce as it is remarkable and stealthily influential. Camden Town, that piratical, bohemian enclave with its canal, its innumerable pubs, and open-air markets was the incubator for a site that, in my estimation, will be remembered alongside publications as varied as The Point, Review 31, N+1, 3AM, and The New Inquiry as one of the more important to have emerged as both the breakup of the neoliberal consensus and Internet technology generated a paradigm shift in our culture that is so profound most have yet to even notice it (even if it’s always dimly sensed). Such is the situation which critic Houman Barekat has described as an “extraordinary flourishing of literary culture online, from blogs, forums, and social media comments to a rapid, and continuing, proliferation of online magazines and journals,” and central to that story is Berfrois.
Ten years have passed since poet, essayist and interviewer Russell Bennetts founded Berfrois, drawing its rather gallic name from the Old English term for the dais on which jousts were viewed. An appropriate name for a site of intellectual discourse, in keeping with Milton’s injunction to “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” More irreverent than that as well, and unassuming too. Berfrois moves ever forward with a profoundly admirable work ethic, avoiding the pretensions that mark so many other millennial publications (well, my contributions can sometimes be pretentious) while also embracing a genuine intellectual ecumenicism. While firmly a publication of the left (as any honest political publication must be) Berfrois has cultivated a diverse coterie of authors, an assemblage that Thomason would have been proud to have purchased the broadsheets of. As writer Joe Linker has reflected on Berfrois, the publication constitutes a “community… genuinely united in standing for freedom from tyranny or abuse of any kind in any place,” a church for those “whose hearts beat in their chests and not in their pockets.” If humans still exist on the other side of whatever that abyss is that we’re all careening towards, than Berfrois will be remembered as one of the more crucial of publications to emerge out of the synapses of the Internet’s hive-mind.
Crucial to Berfrois’ success has been Bennetts’ keen vision which strikes a perfect balance between judiciousness and anarchic potential. While Thomason was content to simply consume, Berfrois’ approach is closer to that of the Renaissance Wunderkammer, drawing essays as varied as the philosophical speculations of Jeremy Fernando and keen criticism of Jessica Sequeira to the democratic meditations of Eric Lehman and the experimental poetics of Scherezade Siobhan. Writing in the Barekat- and Robert Barry-edited anthology The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online, Kasia Boddy rhetorically ask “Isn’t digital criticism the utopia from which mediating gatekeepers have been expelled, where expertise no longer entitles, and where free democratic debate has finally become possible? Isn’t digital criticism the dystopia where corporate sponsored clickbait and listicles reign… Well, yes, and then no.” If the 21st century is an era of so-called fake news and deepfakes as surely as 17th century broadsheets recounted rumor, inuendo, and superstition, then the question has always remained the same – how do you separate the transcendent from the bollocks? Almost every day for the past decade Berfrois has been highlighting the former, even while the internet itself has supposedly eliminated gatekeepers. The brilliance of Berfrois isn’t that it’s a surrogate gatekeeper, it’s that it holds to Walt Whitman’s command to “Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!”
Linker asks “To what degree is calling these… writers a community even accurate? Has someone proclaimed a movement, written a manifesto? Do they form a new school of writing, such as the Imagists, or later, the Beats?” He makes clear that he does see Berfrois and her sister site Queen Mob’s Tea House as a movement of sorts, and right he is. To the best of my knowledge, Linker is the first critic to note that Berfrois, constitutes a genuine literary movement on both sides of the Atlantic, with already a decade of staying power. Does the average reader have any sense of how difficult it is to start a literary journal? My own curriculum vitae is littered with the corpses of literary journals that I had neither the fortitude nor skill to move into a second issue; that Bennetts continues to publish Berfrois almost daily with a stable of dozens of different writers and with hundreds of thousands of readers is a testament to the fact that the magazine isn’t just representative of a movement, it is the movement itself. That Berfrois has accomplished all that it has in a manner that’s so unassuming it borders on humble is perhaps part of the key to its magic, but regardless of why it has so endured (and I’d place my bets on the indefatigable vision and ethic of its Editor-in-Chief), the site exemplifies what Linker describes as a “collective voice [which] argues for independent and alternative, experimental, grass roots writing and engagement in the Humanities.”
The authors whom Thomason collected were the nascent community of those whom were called in the following century the “Republic of Letters.” But while during the Enlightenment there was a certain staid rationality to the idea behind that community forged in correspondence, the pamphlet writers of the seventeenth-century were much more willing to unscrew the doors from their jambs. There was quite a lot of bollocks in that century, but Christ there was divinity too. As it is with our own century, and I’ve found just as much meaning, transcendence, and divinity in Berfrois as I have anywhere. It has been my academy, lyceum, university, colloquium, symposium, and pub all in one, where though as Linker says “By calling them a community, I don’t mean to suggest I personally know any of them. I don’t” is true for me as well, I can’t help but feel gratitude and thanks to be a small part of this emerging Republic of Letters.
As with Thomason’s era, we see the collapse of all of those verities which had sustained society for centuries, but at least there were some folks who could write as it all came crashing down. Berfrois is built on such a creative firmament, true to that Miltonic ethos which says “a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirt, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life,” as applicable to a website as much as print. As Siobhan asks in her poem “Radius,” “How should we confirm the missingness of everything we haven’t ever been allowed to speak into a shape?” In Berfrois I’ve found the shape; we’ve read the words; you’ve begun to understand what it is to speak in a tongue that you didn’t even know you lacked. May it be published for ten more years, and ten more after that, and ten more after that, for as long as what’s needed is the collection of those pamphlets which embolden the spirt while smudging the hand.
Ed Simon is Editor at Berfrois, the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books, and a frequent contributor at several different sites, having appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Washington Post, Newsweek and Jacobin among others. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon, his Facebook author page, or at his website. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion was released by Zero Books in 2018.
Happy Birthday, Berfrois!
A decade of online writing has afforded readers worldwide (those with access and tools to connect and a bit of discernment skill) a wealth of reading material. At the expense, it’s argued, of daily print newspapers and other now-called traditional publishing forms (including, some say, the demise of brick and mortar bookstores), online reading sites have grown like wildflowers – or weeds, depending on your point of view.
In Portland, Oregon, where I’m writing this, other changes over the last decade evidence gradual tidal shifts in how we do things: dedicated, preferred bicycle lanes; microbreweries, tasting rooms, sit out zones; non-uniformed drivers in unmarked panel vans delivering packages up and down the street; likewise, closed-mouthed taxi cabs with invisible flag drops; empty malls; increases in recycling, composting, reusing, repurposing; walking places; neighborhood coffee shops, food carts, farmers markets; wifi spoken here. The disappearance of the grass lawn. And correlative if not causal gentrification and diasporas of the poor and working class and influx of homeless:
Rain and snow, cold wind blows, what can a poor boy do? (Tom Paxton, “Rain and Snow,” 1963).
The disinterested, or the disenfranchised, don’t bother with many of these changes. I know folks who don’t own a cell phone. Others who don’t read online. I know readers who continue attending their monthly book club meetings, bringing the hard copy or paperback checked out from their local library branch. Some I know no longer go downtown; some do, but only on the bus. Sitting out is becoming the most popular form of entertainment. What do those who sit out do? Invariably, it seems, they share literature, ideas, and tea – or coffee, or beer. Ever was there propaganda, now more commonly called fake news, as old as argument, though it often may seem these days pathos leads the means of persuasion contest, ethos a distant second, logos way back, and they can all be faked in a fake match.
Before the advent of social media proliferation, came warnings about things read and repeated on the Internet. Academia frowned on web references. MLA and APA voices found it easier to say don’t do it rather than explain how it might be done. Things seen on the Web undoubtedly lacked peer review, weren’t reliable or credible. Unlearned barbarians, philistines, lacking credentials, threatened the center. Anyone could post anything, and often did. You couldn’t click on a link in a hard copy paper, so what good was it?
Against that attitude, I began following the Becker / Posner Blog. Their last post, in March of 2014, argued for an end to the Cuban embargo. Who were Becker and Posner? On December 4, 2004, they opened their blog with the following, short introduction:
Blogging is a major new social, political, and economic phenomenon. It is a fresh and striking exemplification of Friedrich Hayek’s thesis that knowledge is widely distributed among people and that the challenge to society is to create mechanisms for pooling that knowledge. The powerful mechanism that was the focus of Hayek’s work, as of economists generally, is the price system (the market). The newest mechanism is the blogosphere. There are 4 million blogs. The internet enables the instantaneous pooling (and hence correction, refinement, and amplification) of the ideas and opinions, facts and images, reportage and scholarship, generated by bloggers. We have decided to start a blog that will explore current issues of economics, law, and policy in a dialogic format. Initially we will be posting just once a week, on Mondays. In time we may post more frequently. The first postings will be tomorrow, December 6. Becker is a Nobel-prize-winning economist who in addition to scholarly publications on a wide range of economic issues including education, discrimination, labor, the family, crime, addiction, and immigration, for many years wrote a monthly column for Business Week. Posner is a federal circuit judge and also a writer of books and articles in a variety of fields, including antitrust, intellectual property, and other fields in which economics is applied to law, but also topical fields such as impeachment, contested elections, and national-security issues. (The rules of judicial ethics preclude Posner from commenting publicly on pending or impending litigation or participating in politics, as by endorsing candidates.)
Becker’s and Posner’s posts provided exemplary examples of academic argument. Not only could their blog be adequately cited, it could itself be used to augment reading material in college level economics, political science, or rhetoric classes. The blog had the potential to save on textbook costs.
In fact, the world of blogs was as rich as any library, with as many categories. Consider, for example, Emily Gordon’s Emdashes, which ran from 2004 to 2014 (no posts in 2015, its latest post in January, 2016). Emdashes about page now contains a kind of afterward:
Emdashes, founded in 2004, was the first online community devoted to the writers, artists, history, and readers of The New Yorker. With the addition of 11 years, a loyal following, some nice press (MediaShift, Vanity Fair, the Village Voice, Yahoo!, the Toronto Globe & Mail, etc.), a Webby honor, and a host of new contributors, it’s evolved into a general-interest site whose beats include design, theater, and punctuation. While dormant, the site in archive form reflects our motto: ‘Old news is good news’.
Never was reading about punctuation more charming and entertaining.
But both blog writing and reading online could become overwhelming, obsessive, lacking borders or margins. I say could because many early blog advocates and practitioners may now consider blogging has already run its course. That seems to be the decision of Andrew Sullivan, who closed his “Dish” blog in 2015 after 15 years of not just daily posting but daily posting throughout the day. Maybe it simply stops being fun.
In 1709, Sir Richard Steele started The Tatler. His introductory post made clear his mission:
Now these gentlemen, for the most part, being men of strong zeal and weak intellects, it is both a charitable and necessary work to offer something, whereby such worthy and well-affected members of the commonwealth may be instructed, after their reading, what to think; which shall be the end and purpose of this my paper: wherein I shall from time to time report and consider all matters of what kind soever that shall occur to me, and publish such my advices and reflections every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday in the week for the convenience of the post.
Like Sullivan’s blog 300 years later, Steele’s project ran through a number of changes, and he got help with the listening and writing. And, like Sullivan, making money on the project was considered part of its mission. And Samuel Johnson’s The Rambler (1750) also comes to mind as precursor to today’s blog. Of course, most of today’s blogs we won’t be reading about in 300 years. We may not be reading about them in three days, or three hours.
In 2009, in the tradition of Steele, Addison, Johnson, and many others, old and new, Russell Bennetts started Berfrois. Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, Berfrois continues to grow in its efforts to make “Literature, Ideas, Tea” available to a worldwide community. Berfrois is not a blog, though it maintains certain characteristics of blogs, including daily updates. It remains advertisement free. Neither is Berfrois a newspaper or a magazine. Back in March of this year, Berfrois published its first hardcopy book, an anthology: Berfrois: The Book. No doubt different things to different readers, but for everyone, Berfrois is literature today. Literature is not an idea, but it’s a good place to find ideas. As for tea, I think Berfrois also serves coffee.
Joe Linker, author of “Penina’s Letters,” lives in Portland, Oregon, and is currently the poetry editor at Queen Mob’s Teahouse.
In our age, literary links made possible by the Internet transform with frequency into real-life friendships and events, with these modes existing as a shimmering flux, degrees on a continuum. The first text I published on Berfrois was a translation, followed by a series of what I gave the title ‘philosophical promenades’, accompanied by assorted reviews on which a more traditional publication might have slapped a compression belt.
Berfrois invites the eclectic, the random, the angular and the independent, as well as the search and backtrack and discovery of language, which in the funny way things work, tends to gets to the heart of the matter more quickly than institutionalised, ankylotic approaches. From the start the pataphysical French-flavoured name was attractive to me, and as Berfrois reaches its ten-year birthday, I send my wish that it may always keep its energy of a ten-year-old: still in development, still full of anarchic questioning, still full of innocent beauty and still looking for new comrades, in this case other publications and individual collaborators from all over the world. May Berfrois reach its intellectual quinceañera with joy and daring; it’s been a pleasure to be a part of its growing up.
Ten years, eh? Throughout many of those years you have allowed poor old X space. From the secret, elaborate tunnel system that runs beneath the dis-United States of America X has sent you, Bennetts, through elaborate coded systems, signals from the dimension behind our dimension, the darkness behind the darkness.
Berfrois has proved a worthy companion in the struggle against administered thought. Always to the edges, Bennetts! Always to the edges! X has felt at home with your readers, Bennetts, those who stumble upon or who are regular readers of this remarkable thing that is Berfrois. X has felt companionship in dark times with people who are distant in time and place and yet who feel so close.
Berfrois is a place where like minds come to rest and enjoy each other’s strange company. As for poor old subjugated X, it can say that without Berfrois its life in these tunnels would have been even poorer.
Listen to this! X sounds positively sentimental! So be it Bennetts! And thus let X sign off with a salutation that it has never used before: LOVE.