Apostilles — An Experiment


An illuminated Biblical text with three central pillars, Jesus watching overtop, and texted interspersed inbetween.
An ‘illumination,’ or a highly decorated page uses symbolic, visual cues, in addition to the written word, to communicate information to the reader. This one is an Incipit Page of an Armenian Bible (1637–1638) by Malnazar and Aghap’ir. (Source: Getty)

Staying focused for long periods of time is not often my strong suit. It takes a significant degree of mental (and sometimes physical) energy for me to zero in on something and devote the whole, or most, of my attention to it. When I really get going, I think I’m capable of some meaningful intake and significant outputs, but that takes work.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the ways that I retain information best, particularly as I get older, my attention gets more frayed by our ever-busier world, societal expectations around knowing and speaking shift, and I generally experiment with different modalities of moving through the world.

Most recently I’ve had this experience as I embarked on the journey of learning how to draw.

Let me tell you, it has not been easy. Learning in your thirties is a markedly different experience than earlier in your life, certainly, because your brain chemistry is different, but also because our expectations of proficiency have shifted.

This is work from local artist Harvey Chan, one of the wonderful instructors I have worked with at the Canvas Method Contemporary Atelier.

Since I started, I have spoken constantly about the importance of drawing for me, not only as a creative endeavor but also as a way of challenging my expectations about being good at something.

I have optimized my life to avoid a lot of things that I am not good at. Part of this was me acting on my then-undiagnosed ADHD and shifting my time and attention to the things that could keep me engaged. I think this was a mostly-positive adaptation, but another aspect of this attentional load-shifting was about perfectionism. Not only do I want to do things I enjoy and can dive into in a deep and near-immediately fulfilling way, but I also don’t want to fail. I’ve spent a good two decades eliminating tasks, activities, and relationships that bring me close to failure; part of this is about self-regulation, but part of it is also about being perceived as successful, competent, and even excellent, by others. And anytime we orient ourselves towards external expectations like that, our world becomes dramatically smaller.

Drawing has been a spectacular space to viscerally experience failure again. It’s different, I have learned, from the “whoopsies” I can experience in day-to-day life. It’s not like the botched email or the misformatted document. It’s the raw, embodied feeling of my expectations and my reality being miles apart. In a strange way, as much as I loathe that feeling, I am also called toward it. That distance between what I wanted to do and what I did yearns to be closed. It can be invigorating if I can harness the yearning and wade past the self-disgust. (I am working on it.)

As I have worked to celebrate this feeling in drawing, I have felt more and more that I need to bring it back to my first true creative medium, writing. And hence, this apostille.

My early education was steeped in post-modern ideas about the contingency of knowledge and ‘the death of the author.’ This was a humbling and important experience, reminding young minds not to get too self-obsessed with their own perceived originality. As Roland Barthes said in 1977:

We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture…the writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them. [emphasis added]

I like Barthes’ quote, and this idea in general, because it not only serves that humbling function by knocking originality off its pedestal but also because it still leaves agency for an author to do something important, too. The author may only have one source of power (mixing writings), but indeed they do have power.

And so it brings me back to the intersection of two thoughts: wanting to embrace the failure inherent in trying to create something new, and to undertake that ‘mixing.’ The more I have thought about that, the more this idea of mixing — a sort of gesture towards synthesis without the necessity of having ‘stuck’ the landing — the more attracted I became to it. The more I wanted to do it.

Another way of describing this kind of approach might be to call it an apostille. The word is from the Middle French, apostiller, meaning “to add notes,” ultimately from Medieval Latin postilla, probably from post illa (verba textus) ‘after those (words of the text).’ It’s modern-day usage, it’s not only about annotation but also a form of authentication (a “Hague Apostille”) used for legal documents that are being shared across multiple systems of law.

It overlaps with concepts like marginalia — the small markings, notes, and errata we leave in the margins of things we read — and illuminations, which are part of both Christian and Islamic traditions of stylizing religious manuscripts (which, in turn, are often highly symbolically communicative). All of these are communicative, iterative ways of engaging with texts that add something to the baseline of information that’s initially presented.

David Foster Wallace’s marginalia (Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas, via Kevin Egan).

I’m drawn to the concept of apostilles because it is somewhat less humble than the idea of something ‘simply’ in the margins (whether that’s adding information, or authenticating in some way what’s been seen) of what I read but also feels more aligned to the task I want to start setting my mind to: I want to use this space not only to share the content and information I consume but to mix and to add to something with both my thoughts and with others’.

Consider it an act of rebellion, in the smallest possible of senses, because so much of what we are directed to do by our platformed overlords is to consume content, and to amplify it, but very rarely to parse and to consider that which enters our mind’s eye. I hope my little apostilles will do exactly that.

My intention is to make apostilles into an ongoing series, where I will write about and share information related to the content and ideas I am grappling with in ongoing ways. I have no clear sense of how long or frequent they will be, but structurally, I would like to summarize some of the things I am consuming (usually reading, but I listen to plenty, too), integrate some of my own insights and reflections, and proffer some larger thought or conclusion on the basis of that synthesis.

While marginalia isn’t the specific framing I am going for, Billy Collins’ poem below captures the texture and feeling of engaging with materials with an active spirit. Wish me luck.

Billy Collins, February 1996 (Poetry Foundation, n.d.)



George Patrick Richard Benson

Not very cool, but very earnest. Interested in cities, climate change, and policy more generally; and a little art, politics, and philosophy when time permits.