In a philosophy paper I am presently working on, I lean heavily on the term “adventitious.” I say that the changes an ordinary artifact undergoes over time with respect to its parts are adventitious to it (and hence that a theory of such artifacts that ‘builds in’ these changes to an object’s identity is mistaken). I liked the term “adventitious” here but thought, mistakenly, that I was using it merely as a stylistic variant of “contingent.” I now think, in fact, that it gets at something deeper, or at least other, than contingency (though you’ll have to consult the paper, when it’s ready, to get a sense of what I’m gesturing at).
A few days ago I posted here about how I was re-thinking which memes would be included in my book A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. The book, you could say, was undergoing an adventitious change in its parts. But I am made anxious by these changes. Not because I fear for the identity of the book. It is, in my mind, the very same book, only now with (slightly) different parts. I fear, rather, a different kind of loss.
How have I made the decisions about which memes to retain and which to remove? There are two ways a meme can keep its place. It must either be of sufficiently high quality itself or it must provide me with an occasion for some interesting commentary. While I feel fairly confident in my judgments of quality (only once or twice have I dithered over some meme, wondering if it is good enough for inclusion), I cannot tell, in advance of trying to write the commentary on it, whether a meme will occasion interesting commentary. And that is not an adventitious fact about the work. It is deeply central to what I am doing that I should be open to the adventitious in writing the commentaries. That is the process that underlies the work’s resemblance to the Wunderkammer, the Cabinet of Curiosities.
For example, take the commentary on the Yiddish meme which I have recentlyposted about three times. It is true that I did have some ideas of what I wanted to write about prior to starting on the commentary (some of which persisted into the final version and some of which did not), but it wasn’t until I wrote about a friend’s remark that the Romanization of the Yiddish gave the meme a “Lithuanian slant” that I took off in the direction of Lita (Jewish Lithuania), the Vilna Gaon, and my own Litvak ancestors. I ended up, quite spontaneously, composing a bibliography of these ancestors’ rabbinic works.
I have previously indicated that the spirit of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn hovers over my own efforts in A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. I first read the Sebald six or seven years ago. In the course of his loosely connected, almost free associative, wanderings from one reflection on death and destruction to another, he describes a visit to Somerleyton, the seat of an unlikely magnate from the nineteenth century, now a crumbling cabinet of curiosities in which a guided tour takes one through rooms of bygone paraphernalia. A camphorwood chest which may once have accompanied a former occupant of the house on a tour of duty to Nigeria or Singapore now contains old croquet mallets and wooden balls… The walls are hung with copper kettles, bedpans, hussars’ sabres, African masks, spears, safari trophies, hand-coloured engravings of Boer War battles… Nor can one readily say which decade or century it is, for many ages are superimposed here and coexist… How fine a place the house seemed to me now, continues Sebald, that it was imperceptibly nearing the brink of dissolution and silent oblivion.
In order to avail myself of its riches in the execution of my own current project, I recently started to re-read Sebald’s work – with some trepidation, since time leaves nothing unaltered. And indeed my experience of it has been rather different. On my first reading, I recall being enveloped by a single sustained mood, utterly enchanted. Now, owing perhaps to the somewhat difficult circumstances in which I have been re-encountering Sebald’s melancholy ramblings, my experience has been highly fragmented. I have learnt to recognize, and hence occasionally be irritated by, some of his mannerisms. Parts of the book have moved me nearly to tears while other parts have felt forced and predictable. I have little doubt that the differences here come from me and do not reflect substantial variations in the quality of Sebald’s writing.
One mannerism, which I had either not noticed on my first reading or else had forgotten about, is the way in which Sebald mentions a work by some other writer and then begins, without any warning (and hence without the use of quotation marks), to quote from it. One does not always realize this is happening until one runs into the use of a personal pronoun which is clearly the original author’s and not Sebald’s. At this juncture, Sebald will insert text into the quotation that alerts the reader to the dislocation of the personal pronoun, as I did two paragraphs above.
I had determined that I would use this technique to incorporate some of Sebald’s own book into the commentary on a meme that refers to Sir Thomas Browne, who himself is the subject of some of Sebald’s reflections and whose own spirit evidently infuses his work.
How thrilled I was, then, when a friend and student, Ted Locke, suggested that I read a paper by the literary scholar Jane Tompkins called “Me and My Shadow.” Ted and I have discussed auto-theory off and on for over a year. Tompkins’s paper is an early manifesto of auto-theory. In it, she expresses a frustration with academic writing and a desire somehow to incorporate a more personal element into her work that exactly reflects (or I should say, preflects, since her essay was published in 1987) my own motivations for and aspirations in A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. Having referred to Ursula Le Guin’s distinction between father tongue (which only lectures) and mother tongue (which expects an answer), she goes on to say:
I find that having released myself from the duty to say things I’m not interested in, in a language I resist, I feel free to entertain other people’s voices. Quoting them becomes a pleasure of appreciation rather than the obligatory giving of credit, because when I write in a voice that is not struggling to be heard through the screen of forced language, I no longer feel that it is not I who am speaking, and so there is more room for what others have said.
Sebald’s murmuring prose does exactly what Tompkins seeks to articulate in her essay; it blends the impersonal historical with the personal, it seamlessly incorporates other voices, and it never struggles to make itself heard through forced language. This incorporation of other voices makes his work itself a cabinet of literary curiosities – a work in which one cannot tell what decade or century it is, in which one is as likely to find oneself conjecturing about Sir Thomas Browne’s attendance at a scene depicted by Rembrandt as on the childhood of Conrad, or on the death of Edward Fitzgerald, whose translations of Omar Khayam are so distinctive that they have passed into the English language as something generic – just one of the many ways English can be – in the way that the King James translation of the Bible has. I have yet to finish my second reading of The Rings of Saturn but the frustrations of my re-reading of its earlier parts will, I feel sure, be entirely reconfigured, and perhaps disappear altogether, owing to Tompkins’s invigorating essay. And for anyone keeping track, you might have noticed that I have been silent on my blog for some time now – this post, “Other voices,” is the first new parergonal material I have been able to create for quite some time.
Gerard Genette (yes, I’m still reading Genette’s Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation – it’s endless!) is now discussing the various functions of different kinds of prefaces (all quotations below from pp. 203-5). One function of the most common kind of preface (by the author; published with the text originally) is to explain the unity of the work it stands before. This is especially the case when the work is a collection of some kind. But some authors, he notes, make a point of eschewing the unity of the work and embracing its disunity. Roland Barthes, writing later of his collection Essais critiques, said “I explained in my preface why I didn’t want to give these texts, written at different times, a retrospective unity” but, somewhat contradictorily goes on to say “The unity of this collection can only be a question: What is writing?” As Genette wryly comments: “The retrospective unity that is virtuously shoved out the door sneaks back in through the window in the form of a ‘question’.” (And, talking of Barthes, how brilliantly the lack of punctuation speaks in his title Sade Fourier Loyola, the preface to which “emphasizes indirectly… the incongruous – indeed provocative – appearance of such a grouping.”) More resolutely, Borges, in many of his prefaces, appears to prize diversity over unity: “This book is nothing more than a compilation,” “God grant that the essential monotony of this miscellany… be less evident than the geographical and historical diversity of its themes,” and so on.
I have come to realize that A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga! is about exactly this – privileging disunity and disorganization over their opposites. The Wunderkammer, again: a curious assortment, a serendipity, a heap. But just how far down can disunity go in the book? Continue reading “Repellent intimacy”
An aspect of A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga! about which I have not said very much at all yet is the influence on it of the idea of the Wunderkammer, the cabinet of curiosities. In the back of my mind is always W. G. Sebald’s melancholy but enchanting book The Rings of Saturn which is like a literary manifestation of the Wunderkammer. Sebald was influenced by Sir Thomas Browne and Browne is, in fact, indirectly referenced in one of my memes. (I was referring to an early 18th century anonymous pamphleteer who was, I later came to learn, himself drawing on Browne.)