September 15, 2009 § Leave a comment
Just finished: Dangerous Laughter.
Reading next: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Jan Potocki and The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders.
Libraries and their ilk play a surprising large role in this collection, starting with “The Room in the Attic,” maybe my favorite story in the book (either that or “A Precursor of the Cinema,” which is just rad).
The title of this post is taken from “The Room in the Attic,” and spoken by Wolf, Dave the narrator’s super-cool, iconoclastic, book-addicted friend. Here’s the full passage:
“A book,” he [Wolf] declared, “is a dream-machine.” He said this one day when we were sitting on the steps of the town library, leaning back against the pillars. “Its purpose,” he said, ” is to take you out of the world.” He jerked his thumb toward the doors of the library, where I worked for two hours a day after school, three days a week. “Welcome to the dream-factory.”
Of course, this is not an orthodox argument for the American public library system, or for research libraries, for that matter. Library administrators, organizations like ALA, and well wishers are forced to base arguments for the importance of libraries on things like early literacy and young adult after-school programs, continuing education, provision of internet access for the poor, and arts programming. Mostly libraries are getting away from promoting themselves as places that hold books, which seems hopelessly retrograde and static. (Instead they, especially those that deal with “youth,” are all about ridiculous promotions like hosting gaming nights and making sure they have a presence on Second Life.) Books? God, how embarrassing!
And yet, there it is: “Welcome to the dream-factory.” This plays out in a rather literal sense in many libraries: college kids, preschoolers, the homeless napping and (one would think) dreaming. We in libraries, for whatever reason, resist the idea that we are places to dream. We have been singularly bad about instilling a sense of wonder in our patrons about what libraries make available to them. This is perhaps a self-defeating argument: libraries as public resources are an American concept, and Americans insisted on them because they were efficient means of equalizing availability to information and creating an informed citizenry.
Something in me has always bristled at the idea of libraries as merely information repositories, and, indeed, at the naming of my own chosen field as “Library Science.” Wolf goes on to make clear that he sees books as his way out of the world he finds boring and worthy of contempt; and yes, there is something subversive embedded in the idea of the library, as it now exists in America. It is where you can learn whatever you want to learn — not what anyone tells you you must read. It is where you go to make your own world. It is where you go for dreams, fantasies, utopias; knowledge and wisdom, not (just) data and information. Libraries are some of the few places left in America that create and cultivate idiosyncrasy, free thinking, and, yes, dreams and visions. They deal with the crackpots and the geniuses that will not be dismissed as crackpots for long. These are valuable services.
At the other end of the collection is “Here at the Historical Society.” This is one of a handful of rather Borgesian stories here. Its unnamed narrator explains the recent changes in his Historical Society’s curatorial and exhibition policies: because “the present is the past made visible,” the staff now “go out each day to observe and classify a world that is already a part of the historical record.” In other words, everything belongs in the Historical Society; and candy-bar wrappers and other bits of trash are equally worthy of curation and exhibition as historical artifacts as are arrowheads and other more traditionally “historical” materials. This is rather the opposite of Wolf’s “dream-factory.” (Or is it that idea’s logical conclusion?)
The story is the archival equivalent of the headache-inducing idea of the universal library — Borges’s “Library of Babel.” And frankly, Millhauser is not far off: there has certainly been a shift toward collecting more of the materials of daily life in special collections and archives. Where everyone once wanted the papers of world leaders, they now crave the diaries of frustrated housewives and the letters of the few literate slaves. Where the mission was once seen as documenting history, it is now seen as documenting life.
As someone who tries to make these kinds of decisions — what’s worth keeping? How much more valuable is a 400-year-old document than a 4-year-old document? Will anyone care about a current organization in 10, 100, 1000 years? — this is a profoundly frustrating thought. Millhauser’s narrator talks about the Historical Society’s initiative as a way of seeing the world in full, of being enthralled by the world as its own museum, everything a priceless connection to the past and future; but of course, the story is also a satire, and this is closer to the reaction that many people have to this kind of work: Why in the world would you want to save my papers?
For me, at least, the story comes off as satirical at first, but somehow gets more sincere but also more troubling the more I think about it. Do archives, museums, libraries help people better understand their world? Do they function well either as a dream-factory or as a knowledge generator? Or do they merely present a distorted view of the world — an inevitably and unavoidably incomplete picture of an instantly bygone world? As a librarian, I’ve obviously made my decisions on these questions, at least at a practical level; they nevertheless need to be kept in mind. It is always important to remember that we are much closer to knowing (and to preserving) nothing rather than everything. (See also: Rumsfeld’s immortal “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns.”)
September 8, 2009 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Dangerous Laughter, by Steven Millhauser.
Had it only been a gale instead of a calm, gladly would we have charged upon it with our gallant bowsprit, as with a stout lance in rest; but, as with mankind, this serene, passive foe — unresisting and irresistible — lived it out, unconquered to the last. -Melville, White-Jacket
Millhauser’s story “The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman” reminded me of that passage, which had itself reminded me when I first read it of “Bartleby, the Scrivener”: the calm “I would prefer not to.” Of course, the ambiguity of Bartleby’s stand is legendary: it’s a very open question whether he died “unconquered to the last,” firm in his refusal, or died a broken automaton, something less than a human being, or somewhere in between. But Melville’s statement about the gale here did first bring to mind Bartleby — whatever he might have meant to Melville, he certainly has taken on heroic stature, or at least a kind of grandeur through boredom.
And Bartleby has stayed on my mind after reading Millhauser’s story. It’s a powerful story, itself like a calm at sea in its implacability and plainness. The only truly unusual rhetorical flash comes from the use of first-person plural in the opening, which dissolves into a somewhat generic singular. And it leaves you with the dual mysteries of what exactly happened to Elaine Coleman — who disappears from her apartment with no trace of abduction or escape — and how we should feel about this disappearance.
The story itself conveys an almost overwhelming sadness, and it is tempting to sympathize with the narrator when he finds himself, and the rest of his community, culpable for her vanishing, and for her apparently lonely existence as a wallflower, by their incuriosity about her. But of course, as with Bartleby, there is another way to see it: perhaps it was a heroic act, this vanishing. Perhaps it was the ultimate expression of Elaine Coleman’s contempt for her degraded world. Perhaps it was not a fate imposed on her by the absence of community interest, but a fate chosen, cultivated, and finally acted upon by someone who would prefer not to be seen. (You could argue that the first-person plural supports this argument, acting as a kind of homogeneous, mundane chorus — “For days we spoke of nothing else” — against which Elaine’s act seems even more radical.)
Ultimately, I think this — and, to a lesser extent, the depiction of Bartleby as tragic hero — is a rather strained interpretation. Both Melville and Millhauser see the need to be serenely, passively “unconquered to the last” as unspeakably sad. Bartleby is something singular: a cipher, but a necessary one, whose stand has a kind of meaning and merit that is made apparent even in the story’s bleakness and the pointlessness of his death. It is possible to legitimately make the argument for Bartleby as a symbol of passive resistance.
Elaine Coleman, on the other hand, is rather like Eleanor Rigby; the story gets much of its strength from her status as a kind of ghost flickering at the edges of the narrator’s vision, as he tries to remember her, incidents he might have shared with her, times he might have engaged her but did not. It is a kind of horror story, but a different kind than “Bartleby”: to me, at least, it feels more personal. There’s something horrifying about the idea of being this kind of marginal figure in even your own story — the kind of person that could vanish for lack of popular interest. I think Millhauser tried very hard to avoid being condescending to his absent creation, Elaine. Later stories in the collection show the author has deep interest in and sympathy for the Elaines of the world. It’s hard to avoid being maudlin about lonely people; hard for many people to understand that loneliness is not necessarily thrust upon everyone who lives alone, or that some people prefer not to be sociable (there’s that phrase again).
(Sidebar: is “Eleanor Rigby” maudlin? I think many people find it so, maybe mostly because there’s the intimation that Eleanor’s a spinster; I don’t know, I still find it more heartbreaking than maudlin. Hard to argue against it being at least a little condescending, though.)