Cento: Reading as Rapture, as Vertigo

On “patchwork texts” or centos in general, and specifically a cento of Paul Willems’s work.


Patchwork, colourful, a garment. I’ve carried the image since childhood. To me this internal multicoloured display is the symbol of being different, of suffering for this difference, though for ultimately righteous reasons.

It took me a while to trace the origin of this association to the Biblical story of Joseph in a comic book that I read as a child.

I do mean comic book: it had panels, gutters, speech bubbles, and lovely colourful drawings—the whole mesmerising caboodle—only the subject wasn’t Batman or Wonder Woman. Instead, I read and envisioned the Israelites’ God living in an elaborate golden box, the Arc of the Covenant, which His faithful servants carried through the desert under an unforgiving sun. The brightness of that sun was only rivalled by the brightness of the Arc itself. God spoke in a stern, sharp-angled bubble unlike everyone else’s.

The story of Joseph lends itself to a dramatic telling, panel for panel, as his fortune rises and falls time and again, to rise in the final instance. He is special, endowed with dream-visions he knows how to interpret. Joseph’s adventures, however, start with his father’s gift:

Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colours.

(KJV, Genesis 37:3)

Alternative versions call it a “coat with long sleeves”, but that is of little relevance to me now, retroactively.

(This isn’t where I was going with this post, but since the association is inevitable and particularly relevant in June: Happy Pride Month!)

My personal mythology has transformed the symbolic coat at every opportunity. Colourful goes hand in hand with unique with beautiful frankenstein with remarkable with dangerously balanced on a pinhead (like Kafka’s spinning tops that lose their lustre once they’re picked up), all of which circle back to dissimilar.

And if you’ve been reading this blog you’ll have noticed that self-dissimilar is ultimately what I strive for, e.g., Carson’s musk-ox Io, Cortazar’s vomited rabbits, Kafka’s silent sirens, Kesey’s cuckoo’s nest; or Hamsun’s Hunger, Zambra’s multiple choice test, Panizza’s porcinic deity


All this to say that I’ve naturally been drawn to the rhetorical equivalent of patchwork garments or pastiche monsters—the so-called cento. The word comes from Latin and originally meant quilt, blanket, or curtain, made of old garments stitched together (OED). The cento was popularised as a full-blown rhetorical figure in the Renaissance, born of an obsession with quoting ancient authors.

More commonly, people pepper their work with testimony, which signifies any number of figures that quote, paraphrase, or invoke some form of knowledge for the purpose of inducing plausible belief in the current argument. (For example, I’ve discussed how De Quincey uses it.) But the cento is pure testimony: it takes somebody else’s work, reorganises it and serves it up as an artful blend.

How artful is a relevant debate. Anyone who’s tried reading Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) will have faced an ingenious, but almost impenetrable cento. Traditional poetry, too, tries its hand at the figure:

  • here is an example consisting of fragments from Virgil’s Aeneid;
  • here is an example composed by the Academy of American Poets.

A modern cousin of the figure lives happily in the form of blackout poetry, where everything but certain words is blacked-out leaving a meaningful poem.

But my attraction to the cento isn’t purely academic. I’ve been waiting for a worthy opportunity to test its power, and in my optimism, its practicality.

Paul Willems sets out his romantic view of reading in a chapter of The Cathedral of Mist. His sentiments aren’t given to meaningful paraphrasing  and the best quotes are strewed about, making them hard to offer as illustrations. Even just listing the excerpts chronologically does them no favours.

So I have reordered them. I have created a cento.



In the cento below, every new line signifies a new quoted segment. The three instances of ellipses indicate a phrase omitted from that paragraph. I have neither added my own words, nor have I cut his, with the sole exception of so and but, which belong before the two bold letters below. I have not tried to manipulate the meaning, but rather transmit it, despite the partiality of the text, in such a way that it makes sense independently of the original.

I hope to have done Willems justice.


Cento: Reading as Rapture, as Vertigo.

(All excerpts from The Cathedral of Mist by Paul Willems, translated by Edward Gauvin.)


My attention honed, my soul alert, I open the book.

Reading is my rapture, my vertigo.

There are readers of all sorts. Whether pillar saint, forest dweller, seafarer, alpinist, night owl, early bird, shut-in, or airborne—every reader has a spot of choice and follows rituals surrendering to this admirable vice.

I like reading in trains.

Every morning, I slip a book into my briefcase. With this act, I can already feel the joy of reading rising inside me. When fog or a strike slows the train’s arrival, I pace the platform with a vexed step. As soon as the train stops, I rush for the first free seat and dive into my book without bothering to take off my raincoat.

I try not to make conversation with regulars on board. … For in my briefcase I have a book.

Others only read well in bed.

Silence in the bedroom, hushed well-wishers, whispers, the doctor with his cheery manner, herbal infusions, the thermometer snug in its little nickel-plated sheath—all potent adjuvants to a fine reading experience. But most of all, sickness itself (when not too discomfiting) creates a conducive atmosphere, cocooning me in a cottony, aching armor while my fever-honed mind dashes into the text.

Trains, planes, beds, the occasional café—I need an enclosed space. But of all the places to read, my favorite is the library at Missemboug. … The cat purrs to set the evening going, and the books slumber on the shelves.

Time’s traces are everywhere in the libraries of old houses. Sundials retain no traces of the summers whose golden hours they told. The grandfather clock’s naïve tick-tock takes wing and flies away. No sooner does my watch tell one hour than it tells another. But libraries are dials of darkness and shadow whose hours I like to picture as blue or violet, slowly dyeing the pages of their books.

Here, in the library, time has stood still for 108 years. Only the fine grey snow of dust commingled with moments gathers slowly on the edges of books in the almost geological strata by which time in libraries is measured. For these books measure time. Some have an embarrassed air from still being white along the edges. Others, in addition to the dust that makes them seem dressed in comfy old suits, retain traces of each reading, and commemorate its events.

Sometimes, when I turn a page, I find a pressed flower slipped in, so important did the moment it recalled seem. But no occasion is forgotten so quickly as one marked by a flower. I love chancing upon one while reading, and most of all, I love the yellow halo it leaves on the page, like a photograph of its soul.

Long ago, someone stopped reading this book at this very sentence and never picked it up again. … I can tell from the purplish stain. It took more than eighty tears for the bookmark to run, slightly, onto the page. One might say it touched the paper lightly with a brush as if to remind us that the wings of time brush us lightly with a white breath barely tinged with violet melancholy.

Reading demands an almost religious attitude from us, since with each reading we celebrate a work, which is to say, a creation, and since together, all the books in a library enact the creation of the world. The inner world. This is why it matters so much where we read, just as it matters where we enact a ritual.

Thought is form and form is thought.

It is not about intellectual knowledge, erudite remembrance, but a long association with that literature to which our personal libraries bear witness.

Thinking and writing are not two separate acts—there is but one. I believe style is a kind of meta-language whose secrets must be learned, which is made up not only of whatever text we are reading, but of the books we have been reading for years, whose outlines lie like watermarks beneath the lines of every new work we encounter.

These pages offer no conclusion. They are but the impression of an ignorant reader, since I have never read to learn but only to attempt to enter the secret gardens of poetry and thought. I read, I suppose, as one prays.



Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of https://quiverquotes.com

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