The Object is Always Magic: Narrative as Collection

Gregory Howard

Some years ago I found myself in the British Museum. My family was on vacation for my father's seventieth birthday. We were on our way to Ireland, where my father would get to golf and the rest of us would get to be tourists. I was, in a sense, just passing through. After wandering the galleries for several hours, and just before I was to meet up with my mother and sister, I came upon a small exhibit entitled Medicine Man: The Forgotten Museum of Henry Wellcome. Having long been interested in medical histories, especially failed knowledge and deliberate quackery, and having long been a lover of museums for their transmission of the pleasurable sense of encountering the arcane, I was immediately drawn in. It's safe to say I had no idea what I was about to see. In the room—small by the standards of the museum gallery—all manner of strange and divergent objects were on display. Here there was a male chastity belt, artificial noses made of gold, silver, and ivory, glass eyes in rows and real eyes in jars, artificial hands made of metal and other artificial hands made of ivory, a variety of artificial legs, various anatomical dolls, and phrenological heads; there were advertisements for treatments and medicines, public health posters warning of a variety of diseases, painted depictions of medical techniques and surgeries, and coterie of shamanistic amulets, votive candles, and death masks. I walked through the exhibit with a sense of awe, delight, and a little bit of confusion.

It wasn't my first encounter with this kind of thing. Years earlier I bought five Victorian glass eyeballs at an antique sale outside of Harvard Square in Boston. The antique dealer told me each eyeball had been made specifically for a client, a perfect match to correspond to the client's real eye. They were hazel and blue and green and light brown and some of them had artfully constructed red veins in the sclera in order to enhance the realism of the eye. A hundred of them had been found in an old optometrist's shop that had burned down. The eyeballs were one of the only things to survive the fire. As the dealer told me this, I held various eyeballs in my hand, felt their particular weight, admired their beauty, and thought about the people for whom they were intended. Why did they never pick up their eye? Did something tragic happen to them before they were able? Did they fall out of window? Were they shot by a jealous lover? A jealous spouse? A jealous mailman? Did they lose all their money before it was time to pay for the eyeball? What does a fake eye say about a person anyway? What story can it tell?

In his novel Immortality, Milan Kundera creates an entire book out of a gesture the narrator, a writer named Milan Kundera, witnesses at the pool of his health club. A middle-aged woman, having finished a difficult swimming lesson, turns back smiles and waves. The gesture, the narrator tells us, belongs to that of a young girl. The narrator is fascinated by this discrepancy. Who is this woman? he wants to know. "The essence of her charm," he states, "independent of time, revealed itself to me for a second in that gesture and dazzled me. I was strangely moved. And then the word Agnes entered my mind. Agnes. I had never known a woman by that name."

The lesson here is this: stories come from fragment and from ellipsis.

At the same time I got the glass eyeballs I was collecting junk. Mostly what I collected was rusted scrap metal I found on the street, small bits, big chunks, anything that caught my eye. I would pick it up and bring it back to my room and put it in piles. All over my room there were piles. I imagined I would learn how to solder and create something wonderful from the culture's detritus, the bits sloughed off in our delirious and impatient constant rebirthing. I put the metal in piles and put the piles in boxes. I took them with me everywhere I went for years, boxes upon boxes. I never learned how to solder and didn't create anything, yet still I collected this scrap metal, kept it, and cherished it. Maybe it seems useless but I don't think what I was doing was useless. What I was doing was learning how to be a writer.

When I was little I tried to collect baseball cards but I couldn't bring myself to care. I tried stamps and coins and little spoons with state names on them but I didn't care about them either. I thought I should collect something, but I didn't know what to collect or why. Until I started writing I was very organized. My rooms were always clean and all of my stuff was meticulously placed. Everything had a proper place. Once I started writing, once I began to think of myself as a writer and to write my first short stories, my room got messier and messier. I kept bringing in junk—scrap metal, an old window, broken toys, a rusty saw—and I kept putting the things I already had in "the wrong place," leaving them where they weren't supposed to be. In Chapter 33 of Life: A User's Manual Georges Perec presents two cellars. The Altamounts' cellar is described as neat, tidy, and clean. What follows this description is a long list of objects. Just a list. In contrast the next cellar, the Gratiolets' cellar, is described as basically a rubbish heap. Here, instead of a list, Perec contextualizes each object. We find out that old typewriter was used by Francois Gratiolet to create invoices when the factory they owned decided to modernize, that an old overcoat was worn by Olivier Gratiolet after he was take prisoner in 1940 and kept until he was released in 1942. We are able to peruse a box of curling photographs and are told all about the different family members appearing in each photo. Almost every object in that dingy and disorganized space comes with a story.

The lesson is this: stories come from mess and unexpected juxtaposition.

Let me tell you a different story about the exact same thing. At the same time I was collecting junk I was also collecting rubber bands. Like the scrap metal, I found them on the street. I wore the rubber bands around my wrists like bangles. Every time I saw one I picked it up and put it on. This went on for months. Soon I couldn't not pick one up. If I walked past a rubber band and neglected to pick it up I would begin to get nervous. I would get hot and start to sweat. My chest would get tight and I would get a lump in my throat.  Eventually I would turn around and pick up the rubber band.

A year or so later I had what I can only describe as a protracted nervous breakdown. I began to believe that I was dying. My death took many forms. First I had a brain tumor. I knew this because I had constant headaches and I started dropping things and had trouble articulating my thoughts. These are also all symptoms of acute anxiety. My tumor soon moved. At various times I had lymphoma, rectal cancer, colon cancer. That year I collected symptoms like rubber bands. I racked up hundred and hundreds of doctor and hospital bills. I spent New Year's Eve on the phone with the emergency room telling them about my brain tumor. I bought a book of self-diagnosis and read it over and over again learning of all the new diseases I had. Did you know that excessive sweating is a symptom of cancer? Did you know that unexplained persistent itching is also symptom of cancer? You'll never guess what disorder they also express.

What I am talking about is obsession. The Oxford English Dictionary tells me that a rare or obscure meaning of obsess is "to be haunted or possessed by an evil spirit." The secondary definition of obsession is "the supposed action of an evil spirit in besetting a person." The primary definition of both obsess and obsession revolves around the idea of the siege: obsess: to besiege; obsession: the act of besieging. Etymologically, though, the word involves sitting, ob-sidere: to sit facing or before. When I sit facing the television I can watch people who have collected so many things that their homes have become unlivable. These people can't stop collecting. They must fill their physical space with clothes or art or teddy bears or canned goods or any combination of things you can imagine. What is haunting these people? Why must their space be compulsively filled? Much like an old-fashioned freak show, I am supposed to watch these people and feel better about my own life. But what I see is a reflection in a funhouse mirror.

In an interview with Robert Glück, Dennis Cooper has this to say about obsession: "What I write about has such an intense hold on me, and seems so inappropriate to the world I live in, that it's left me deeply confused and split. My life and my work have been about trying to negotiate between my internal world and my external world... If I have any authority, it derives from my kind of obsessive focus on building a craft that will get me as close as humanly possible to these things that would destroy me if I didn't have language to protect me." Look closely at what happens in Cooper's answer. He has things that obsess him that have a hold over him, that haunt and besiege him. Writing is a way of relating to these things. But not just any kind of writing. Not free writing, not journaling. He builds a craft in order to get close to these things. But not too close. He creates form and structure so as to contain them. He does this over and over. Obsessively, he says. He transfers his obsession to the act and craft to the writing itself.

Here is maybe an obvious supposition: writing is about being bewitched, obsessed, fascinated (which like obsession is defined in relation to spells and witchcraft—fascinarum is Latin for spells). Here is another: the only way to convey the meanings of obsessions, meanings larger than ourselves, is to build a craft, to engage with form and with language. In other words, writing is a way of dealing with obsessions that might otherwise isolate and ruin us.

The artist Susan Hiller notes that collections of objects inherently contain the power of narrative. She notes that "any conscious configuration of objects tells a story" and moreover that a collection of objects is "an ambiguously bonded unit" that tells a particular story, and it is by "setting the boundaries that the story [is] told." Hiller's contention about collections and storytelling is embedded in the very term. Collect comes from the Latin lego-legere, which means to choose and gather, but also to take, to traverse, and most importantly in this case to read. When paired with the prefix col-, which derivates from cum, meaning with, the term becomes about gathering together and reading together. In others words a collection is any grouping that must be read together to have meaning. 

This meaning is not static. Hiller notes that there are two possible stories any collection can tell: the story envisioned by the artist and the story that the listener is "hearing, understanding, or imagining." However, neither story is privileged. Hiller makes a point of emphasizing this by writing that the artist's vision for the collection is the story she "thinks she's telling" rather than the story she is telling. What this means is that both artist and viewer relate to the objects in roughly the same way. Each generates meaning, and each does so by creating relationships between the objects. This is what reading together means—connecting one thing to another in order to tell a story, in order to make sense of those objects in front of you. To make such a connection, both the artist and the viewer plunge themselves into the space between the objects. They must occupy, if briefly, the disjunct, the open space that separates each object from its neighbor. So while the artist necessarily creates relationships for herself in the process of the accumulation that generates the collection, the viewer's creation is just as valid, even while possibly divergent and even oppositional. The objects remain the same. Because the artist does not make the objects, but rather finds them, the objects have equal weight for her and her viewer. The ultimate meaning is found in a shifting triangulation between objects, artist, and viewer. The collection, then, works by parataxis, whereby relationships are left undefined and meaning comes through rupture and accumulation.

Viewed in this light, collection finds an analogue in consideration. When we consider something we view or contemplate it attentively. We survey, examine, and inspect. We think it over. All of these ideas figure actively into collection. The difference, Hiller tells us, between the collection and more, let's say, prosaic accumulation of objects—ones that you might have in your home, for example—is the process of consideration. A collector does not merely obtain objects but also analyzes them, and sorts them into typologies. Collectors label and group; they consider how and where a new acquisition fits into their already ordered assemblage. Another term for this is paying attention.

So what we have discovered so far is that in the heart of the idea of collection are two other ideas: meaning in a collection is generated through parataxis and that a collection is a collection—it works as a collection—because of the attention paid to each object by the curator. I'd like to think about each of these a little more.

Narrative works through accumulation. The simplest and most elemental form of narrative, the folk or fairy tale, may be considered as simply an accumulation of events. The fairy tale, the folklorist Max Luthi tells us, always and only moves forward. The characters in fairy tales rarely stop to reflect on the action taking place. For example, in good old "Hansel and Gretel," neither child stops to think that maybe trying to get home is not the wisest course of action considering their father and stepmother have already tried to kill them twice before. Instead the action accumulates. Hansel and Gretel are taken out the forest and left there; they find their way home by way of the dropped stones; they are taken out again and this time get lost; they find the witch's house made of candy; the witch captures them; they kill the witch and take all the jewels the witch was hoarding; they start to go home but find themselves separated from their house by a large lake; a big white duck takes them across; they go home to find their step-mother has died. The connections between all of these events are tenuous; they don't hold up in the light of causality, plot mechanics, or psychological motivation. Questions, in fact, abound. Why doesn't the father switch careers? Why don't they try to forage for food in the forest before abandoning the children? Why do witches eat children? Why does the witch have jewels? What's the deal with the duck? How does the stepmother die? None of these events are explained. This is because, as Luthi tells us, fairy tales work on the level of the symbolic. Emotions are externalized into objects and actions.

However, fairy tales are generally missing both the rupture and the ellipsis. Certainly the events and objects accumulated in fairy tales can seem disjunctive. A girl goes into a field, finds a giant mushroom, pulls it up, discovers a magical kingdom—these are wildly disparate events; however, as we know, the fairy tale is often framed by the pedagogical; we learn values (cleverness, kindness, cooperation) in these tales. What would happen if we removed that particular aim, keep the forward movement and accumulation and accentuate the rupture and ellipsis? We might get a story by Amina Cain.  Let's look at Cain's short story "Aviary" from her book I go to some hollow. In the first half of the story we learn 1) people go the aviary during "A Night at the Aviary" and 2) holes are opening up all over the city. The protagonist of the story goes to the aviary and regards the holes. She goes to a party where a man drags his foot around in a circle. She sits next to one of the holes and knits. Later she goes to a film showing in a park and sits next to the same man who was dragging his foot at the party. Together they watch a movie that begins with an interior shot of library at night. The man she is with swears he has been in that library. After that she talks to an older man and listens to two fathers worry about the holes. Obviously this is a summary and removes the details, the specificity, the magic. But it does give us a sense of the quickness of Cain's narrative and its slipperiness. An aviary, holes, older men, movies, a library, fathers—what do these things have to do with each other? Cain doesn't tell us. She eliminates all causal relation and almost systematically resists interiority. Instead she leaves each aspect of the story obstinately alone, letting its connotations ripple through the story. Together they create a complicated emotional effect, at least for me, something to do with isolation, stillness, flight from others and from self, and the dangers of loneliness.  She creates this by letting each aspect of the story sit side by side with the others with enough space around it to make them gleam all with their own light and also the reflected light of the things around them.

If we are to think about the collection as an analogue for literary form, we must then think like a curator. In other words, we must pay strict attention to our objects. Paying attention in this literary sense means two things. The first is perhaps obvious. It means noticing things. It means noticing everything around you, but also noticing your relationship to these things, your feeling about them, how they relate to you and to other things around them. While obvious this is by no means easy. The world is now designed to keep you from actually paying attention. Every day I am bombarded with so much information that all I want is more information. I do not want to think about what I have learned. I do not want to explore it. I only want to know. I refresh web pages obsessively. I am not actually knowing. I am keeping myself distracted. I am collecting stories to help me forget I am sitting alone in a room sitting in front of—facing—a screen. So paying attention, considering, means thinking deeply, about relationships, unexpected connections and juxtapositions, in the way that Cain expresses in "Aviary" or the way Henry Wellcome did in his own collection. Let's think about it again.  Over the course of his life, Henry Wellcome collected anything that spoke to "the continuous perils and ravages of disease encountered in the battle of life." His collection is interesting and significant in that it makes no distinction between Western and Eastern medicines or between modern and ancient. This was because Wellcome's interest was not in the objects themselves, or rather neither in the objects as art nor as a kind of currency, but in what they represented. Wellcome's intention and the collection's purpose were to demonstrate "the actuality of every notable step in the evolution and progress from the first germ of life up to the fully developed man of today." Wellcome wanted nothing less than to assemble a full history of humankind. Because, Wellcome reasoned, all people had to deal with illness and death, the history of medicine would provide the lens through which this story might be told. And it was the artifacts and relics Wellcome collected that would tell this story. Obviously Wellcome failed. His collection doesn't tell the full history of humankind. What can? But by placing so-called primitive ideas of health and wellness, ideas connected deeply to the world of spirits and holy mystery, in other words definitively non-modern ideas about health and body and wellness, by placing these objects next to modern ones, indeed mixing them together, Wellcome succeeds in both opening up our idea of what medicine is and commenting on our modern sense of scientific mastery. While not the whole story Wellcome intended, it is a very interesting one.

But we are not working with objects, we are working with language. And this brings us to the second aspect of consideration or attention: specificity or detail. It is only through making our language specific, through thinking about the details needed, that we can express what we need to express. For an example of what I mean we might turn to the Polish writer Bruno Schulz:

On Saturday afternoons I used to go for a walk with my mother. From the dusk of the hallway, we stepped into the brightness of the day. The passers-by, bathed in the melting gold, had their eyes half closed against the glare, as if they drenched with honey. Upper lips were drawn back, exposing teeth. Everyone in this golden day wore that grimace of heat—as if the sun had forced his worshippers to wear identical masks of gold. The old and the young, women and children, greeted each other with these masks, painted on their faces with thick gold paint; they smiled at each other's pagan faces—the barbaric smiles of Bacchus.

How rich the detail and associations are here. How easy it would be to say: It was very hot; it was dreadfully hot; it was so hot I couldn't move; or even: It was too hot to think straight—all of which are contained in Schulz's paragraph. But to do so would miss out on startling images—the bared teeth!—the precision of language—grimace of heat—and the movement and the complexity of thought. Yes it is hot but the sun's rays are also compared to items that connote luxury, power, and health—honey and gold. The heat turns the people barbaric in the way that incredible heat can, making them dumber, more base (think here of how violence statistics rise during heat waves), but it also reveals to the narrator the pagan world of ritual that lies just beneath the modern one, something wonderful and strange right in the heart of the prosaic. This is exactly the kind of unexpected connection that comes through precision of language.

I'm not necessarily arguing here for sumptuousness of detail. At least I don't think so.  What I'm arguing for is the right detail. The detail that conveys the complex ideas or emotions embedded in or intrinsic to those things that obsess or fascinate us. I'm arguing for us to remember the fairy tale and externalize the emotions and consciousness into the concrete object, the thing that can slip past our ever-critical, possibly irony-girded conscious mind and into the parts of us that hum and throng with softer more permeable substance

We live in a narrative-saturated world. It is easy to know the story we are in and to feel its poignancy well in advance of that which would generate it. It is easy to utilize these second-hand and well-worn emotions. Works that operate in the way I am suggesting allow for work to surprise us in new ways, both as readers but also as writers. Thinking like a collector can allow our own work to blossom for us in new and unexpected ways. Toward the end of Piotr Szewc's elegiac novel Annihilation the narrator describes a tryst between two people in the small town he has spent the whole book describing. The narrator spends a page describing with precision the seductive poses the two lovers perform as foreplay. That in itself is impressive. But then we get this moment: "Take, for instance, those hairs growing near her nipples, which, if Romanowicz is to be believed, are so attractive. Because of Romanowicz, Kazimiera M resists plucking them." A woman's hairy nipple is a surprising thing to find in a sex scene. Even more surprising, that it is a primary erotic player. Desire and sex are, of course, incredibly complex. It shouldn't surprise us that the hairs near his lover's nipple would turn Romanowicz on. People are turned on by far more complicated and singular things. Moreover, it is often our lover's idiosyncrasies, the bodily things that make them them, that turn us on. And yet routinely in easy narratives sex is reduced to the most obvious, eyes and mouths, breasts and cocks, hairless, devoid of smell or sweat, always simple and fluid; it tells us nothing except that people desire, which is like saying the sky is blue. Szewc's work here, or the work of Dennis Cooper or Robert Glück or Mary Gaitskill, puts desire under a microscope; they create forms and use precise language to really tell us and show us how it is, which is always more than we think it is.

In his Theory of Prose Viktor Shklovsky writes: "And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art. The purpose of art, then is to lead us to knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight rather than recognition." Notice here Shklovsky's opposition of sight and recognition. The latter, for Shklovsky, is less a method of orientation than one of habituation. Once we recognize an object we stop really seeing it and it becomes, for us, utilitarian at best. We see it only if it is necessary to us and if it is not then we may not see the object at all; it may completely disappear. "If the complex life of many peoples takes place entirely on the level of the unconscious," Shklovsky writes, "then it's as if this life has never been." Sight, on the other hand, is not merely the cataloguing of impressions, not merely noticing, but truly apprehending the object in front of us. True seeing means seeing what is "stony" about the stone or the "chairness" of the chair, what makes them what they are. Sight is the so-called "seeing with new eyes." Shklovsky calls the process of jolting the reader or viewer into sight estrangement—the making strange of what had been familiar and recognizable.

Shklovsky's conception of estrangement comes at the heels of the Russian Revolution, and there is more than a hint of Marxist interrogation of the exploitation and automatizing tendency of capitalism here. Capitalism's habituation has led us to see only the artifice and not the world. We see and know falsely. However, once we see the world as it is, we know our true place in it. Art estranges us to the world so that we may see our estrangement from it. The implication of a return to home hovers around this argument, a sense that there is a concrete world that is naturally our home and will welcome us once we see it. But what if the world is more mysterious than concrete? What if the world is not necessarily our home? What if all we do is arrange and rearrange our objects and plunge ourselves continuously into the spaces between them?

Nicholas Royle asserts, succinctly, that this is the case. "The world is uncanny," he writes in his book-length study of the term. The uncanny, we know from Freud, is that feeling of the unheimlich, or the unhomely—the feeling that we are not at home in our home or at home in a place we should not be at home. It is also famously slippery. In his essay on the subject Freud goes on for pages without truly defining it. We know it is not intellectual uncertainty, that it has to do with repressed desire, and that it is generated via encounters with the double, and with the confusion between the animate and the inanimate (lifelike automatons are uncanny, people in the midst of epileptic fits are uncanny). Nicholas Royle gives a laundry list of experiences: it concerns the ghostly and supernatural; affects our ideas of property and ownership (this includes homes and proper names); the experience of déjà vu; of chance encounters that bespeak fate; it can stem from the fear of loss of eyes or limbs; it touches upon the gruesomeness of severed limbs or cannibalism or the return of the dead; it finds its home in solitude and darkness and uncertainty; and, along with Freud, the experience of the double and the confusion between inanimate and animate. All of these experiences estrange us momentarily from the world. They break through our ordered, domestic life but they do not make us feel at home. Instead they make us feel the mysteriousness of home, the foreignness of home.

If we take up Shklovsky's injunction and apply it to Royle's assertion what we get is the desire for a kind of literary art that would make us feel our unhomliness and see how and why we experience the world as uncanny.

When I walked into the room exhibiting the collection of Henry Wellcome I felt that peculiar mixture of the familiar and the foreign. It seemed I had stumbled upon a secret room filled with objects assembled just for me. While I was immediately attracted to certain objects (the male chastity belt, the artificial limbs), as I perused the collection I found myself at times alienated. Other objects didn't fit in with my idea of this collection, with the story I was beginning to tell myself. This room was and was not for me. Any conscious collection of objects does tell a story. However, it is a story told in fragments and whispers. Each object bears the trace of inclusions in other collections, of its life before its current arrangement. Stripped of those connections yet still haunted by them, the object becomes something totemic. "I would say the moment an object appears in a narrative it becomes like the pole of a magnetic field, a knot in the network of invisible relationships," writes Italo Calvino. "The symbolism of an object may be more or less explicit, but it is always there. We might even say that in a narrative the object is always magic." The objects in a narrative—the objects that comprise a narrative, the scenes, the details—are like those magical keys found so often in folk tales, unlocking the door to a wondrous and terrible parallel world that is somehow strangely like our own.