- Memory, Metaphor, and Aby Warburg’s Atlas of Images by Christopher D. Johnson
Christopher Johnson’s book about Aby M. Warburg’s last project, the encyclopedic atlas of images titled Mnemosyne, is the first (and long overdue) in English to focus on this project. Building on work by Ernst Gombrich, Martin Warnke, Michael Steinberg, and other commentators such as Cornelia Zumbusch and Claudia Wedepohl, who within the last ten years have published extensively (in German) on Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, Johnson nevertheless creates something new, bold, and entirely his own.
As he invites the reader into Warburg’s “living museum of visual metonymies,” Johnson proves himself a generous and gracious guide, competently demonstrating how in this “latter-day memory palace . . . we can immediately experience antiquity’s literal and figurative ‘afterlife’” (xi).
The book attempts everything—and accomplishes a great deal. In the best tradition of Ryle’s penseur or Geertz’s cultural anthropologist, Johnson provides a thick description par excellence. Not only does Johnson discursively trace Warburg’s digressive and allusive Atlas, mapping its tensions, following the complex thematic sequences inscribed into its panels, and explaining how Warburg’s concept of the “pathos formulas” coins the cultural memory of the West, he also attends to Warburg’s [End Page 202] writing (published and unpublished), his literary and scientific sources, his intertexts and influences. In order to explain the Atlas’s literary, philosophical, and intellectual-historical implications, he sheds light on Warburg’s collaborators and critics, his dialog with thinkers who inhabit the immediate and tangential precincts of his circle, on analogues, antecedents, and Warburg’s legacy.
Furthermore, it is another of the book’s self-professed aims also to demonstrate how Warburg’s metaphorical, metonymic, and associative thinking is inscribed with and reflective of a specific epistemological stance and how, precisely in its nondiscursive, elliptical qualities and combinatory thought, it “lends metaphor new historical and epistemological powers” (x).
Johnson’s intellectual reach is far, his commentary theoretically complex and intuitive. It provides the reader, Warburg scholar and novice alike, with many different points of entry into the material, concisely summarizes and contextualizes Warburg’s project with a wealth of references and background information, and weaves these elements into a presentation of great erudition and scope that is at once deeply informed, methodologically reflective, and winningly whimsical. Johnson’s approach and relationship to his material are quintessentially Warburgian: he develops his method (and lines of investigation) out of his subject matter, traces its “implication threads” into remote areas of knowledge, follows with fascination the transtemporal and transregional migration of ideas, and moves expertly and with remarkable insight and intellectual daring between numerous discourses. Contemplative, tenacious, and thoroughly comparative, Johnson’s work shares its subject’s disdain for disciplinary, conceptual, or chronological boundaries.
In seven chapters (each subdivided into separately titled subsections not reflected in the list of contents) Johnson, progressively and digressively thickens his description, oscillating between close readings, broad comparative analysis, and philosophical reflection. Chapter 1 describes the scope, contents, origins, and motives of the Bilderatlas. It discusses Warburg’s opening panels, reflects on his idiosyncratic terminology, and frames Mnemosyne by adducing parallel instances of visual and literary memory. Johnson’s ambition and stupendous erudition are demonstrated in his discussion of Hölderlin’s hymn “Mnemosyne,” Jean Paul’s reflections on metaphor, and the fragmentary, heterogeneous memory work of W. G. Sebald. Along the way, he draws on writings by Susan Sontag, Jorge Luis Borges, and Don DeLillo (to name just a view), on the painting of Gerhard Richter, and (in a reflection on the process of memory formation, the role of mediated images, and the relationship of lived experience and collective memory) his, Johnson’s, own personal recollection of the burning Twin Towers.
Deftly and competently Johnson weaves these threads together, following his intuition rather than the precharted paths of Warburg scholarship, and creating a fabric of dense texture and rich colors, in order to unfold (at the heart of the first [End Page...