Decentring the Bodleian Law Library at Christmas with the help of Sokurov’s Russian Ark

By | 18 December 2015

My Christmas film is Russian Ark.  In one lingering ‘take’, the film leads us through the Hermitage in a series of dreamlike sequences, like the thread that guided Theseus through the labyrinth, until we arrive not at the Minotaur, but at a magnificent Romanov Ball.

The film brilliantly negotiates 300 years of history as the Marquis de Custine, accompanied by an unseen narrator, time-travels from room to room on a wintry day. We see Catherine the Great, a delegation from the Shah to Tsar Nicholas 1, a man making his own coffin during the siege, a blind woman who can describe the works of art she cannot see, the children of Tsar Nicholas II … then the glorious ball, at which the Mariinsky’s Valery Gergiev conducts the orchestra in the Mazurka from Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar, a brilliant use of irony and allusion to capture all of Russian history simultaneously.

So what has this to do with Christmas, the Law or the Library? My case is that our refurbishment programme has transformed the Bodleian Law Library into a postmodern work of art, our experience decentred by the unexpected juxtapositions of collections on the move, defamiliarized by sealed off doors or staircases, and disrupted by thought provoking references to offsite collections in the Book Storage Facility at Swindon or the Gladstone Link. From being a self-referential modernist law library we have developed into the deconstructed embodiment of our collections.

Just as Russian Ark’s journey through the Winter Palace encompasses all of history in a single camera shot, so the Bodleian Law Library captures many locations and periods of legal history simultaneously: from the Athenaion Politeia to the modern Greek Constitution;  or from Polnoe sobranīe zakonov Rossīĭskoĭ Imperīi  through the Soviet Sistematicheskoe sobranie deĭstvui͡ushchikh zakonov Soi͡uza Sovetskikh Sot͡sialisticheskikh Respublik to the Constitution of the Russian Federation.   And the end of the film?  Russian Ark’s unseen narrator (perhaps it is Sokurov himself) seems to step outside and face the Neva, as he says: “look, the sea is all around and we are destined to sail forever …”. So, perhaps, is the Bodleian.

As for the Christmas connection? Well, there is snow outside the Winter Palace, and it’s a great film to enjoy with a glass of mulled wine and a mince pie (but not, of course, in the Library!)*

*This entirely frivolous blogpost was inspired by Dr Helena Hammond’s entirely serious and scholarly article Dancing against History: (The Royal) Ballet, Forsythe, Foucault, Brecht, and the BBC