One night more than a decade ago, I found myself alone in the apartment I shared with several friends from college in Minneapolis. It was one of those humid summer nights where the only reasonable thing to wear were one’s boxers and a t-shirt. I was, at the time, seeking to cultivate a pompadour; this was long before there were a raft of metrosexual hair products to assist in such a project, so I was reduced to buying bryl-creem from the local old-school pharmacy. Bryl-creem, by the way, reeks: whenever you see those black and white photographs of crooners from the ‘30s and ‘40s, know that they must have trailed clouds of vaporous, vaguely mint-smelling fog.
None of us were what you would call “gainfully employed” at the time, yet all of my roommates had gone out for the evening with their girlfriends. These were the days of what DeLillo calls “languor and drift,” when the notion of a “career” was a distant horizon that can be safely ignored for the brief but more intriguing possibilities of pursuing sensuous intensities an d simple drunkennesses with little thought or care for tomorrow’s hangover. I was, then, left to luxuriate in the pleasures of self-pitying loneliness and solitude. I thought that perhaps I would practice my pompadour in the bathroom mirror. This was an older apartment—perhaps built in the ‘30s—and the lighting wasn’t so good—everything was cast in a lovely golden haze, like the opening scenes of The Godfather with Don Corleone massaging his cat. In this flavescent light signaling nostalgia (or maybe I only remember it that way…ha!) I reached atop the medicine cabinet to grasp the foul-smelling pomade and inadvertently knocked it over. It fell behind the medicine cabinet, into one of those non-spaces like the walls that separated room from room, one of those unthought about regions that contain things like pipes and wires that we tend not to want to see or think about. Realizing that I had lost my bryl-creem and thus, my pompadour, I grabbed a flashlight and stood atop the commode to see if I could retrieve it from its crypt. Leaning over the sink I strained to see what had become of the tube; shining the light into the small crevice that separated the top of the medicine cabinet and mirror from the bathroom wall, I observed a range of other objects lying on the pink fiberglass insulation—a razor, what looked to be a receipt, a variety of q-tips, a comb, and a tube of hair gel, and other things that I can’t really remember.
I was overcome with a wash of complicated and interwoven feelings and emotions. I felt that I had inadvertently discovered a lost and forgotten reliquary; I understood that I was looking at one of those little museums of lost objects that no doubt surround us unseen everyday and all the time (so that’s where my eyeglasses went…); I also understood that I was only one in a line of people who must have performed the exact same motion in the exact same space over the years, all of us having nudged when we should have grasped and felt the momentary sense of displeasure at having knocked an object of some small significance into the oblivion within the wall. I also felt the tug of inarticulate kinship with all of these ghosts of residents past who suddenly came pouring into the small intimate space of the bathroom. I stood there on the toilet for a few moments, and felt like William Stafford, pausing to reflect before pushing the doe that he had just hit with his car on a lonely stretch of highway:
I thought hard for us all–my only swerving–,
then pushed her over the edge into the river.
I, too, thought hard for us all, and then realized that I could not retrieve my bryl-creem, but also that I didn’t want to. Better to let it lie there in its forgotten mausoleum with the rest of the objects. There in the river of history that exists as a “a dull and unlocatable roar, as of some form of swarming life just outside the range of human apprehension,” with all of the other data and information that Don DeLillo imagines to continue to hover at the edges of human perception and understanding.
So much passes by our ability to perceive and assimilate and apprehend. Nicholson Baker speaks of “things, like gas pumps, ice cube trays, transit buses, or milk containers,” each of which have “undergone disorienting changes” over the past few years (he was writing in the mid-eighties…today, one might substitute phones, books, yellow pages, the internet…”); Baker contends that “the only way that we can understand the proportion and range and effect of those changes, which constitute the often undocumented daily texture of our lives” is to trace them back to those “kid-memories” that are directly connected to the “violas of lost emotion.” We can only really understand our “adult” fascinations in relation to our childhood fascinations—these are what “furnish the feedstock of my comparisons and analogies and sense of the parallel rhythms of microhistory.” The child is, as has reasonably been said many times, is the father of the man.
It is hard to retrieve this sense of pleasurable confusion when we encounter objects. Everything seems to come to us through prepacked and preconceived routes of supply and demand, producer and consumer. But there are places and moments when this uncertainty re-prevails. Places like the Museum of Jurassic History.
I won’t rehearse all of the details of this place, as they have been written about extensively in far more detail and poetry than I can muster here. I will simply direct you here, to an article on the place from the nytimes website.
In short, David Wilson, the proprietor/curator of his peculiar museum, has assembled a range of objects and Things that seem to defy the ways we normally conceive of reality. If you’re curious, check out Megaloponera foetens, the “stink ant of Cameroon,” or the Sonnabend Model of Obliscence [sic], or myotis lucifurgus, the bat from South America that is capable of penetrating solid objects and that was captured in a mass of solid lead. Is this all true? Is it complete bullshit? Does it matter?
The experience of passing through Dr. Wilson’s museum is (like every important experience) essentially non-communicable because it posits itself in that decisive but unthought about realm that exists between understanding and total incoherence, between knowing and not-knowing. As a museum director contends:
Everything initially just seems self-evidently what it is. There’s this fine line, though, between knowing you’re experiencing something and sensing that something is wrong. There’s this slight slippage, which is the very essence of the place.
Telling you this is to wreck the pleasure of the place, but I’ll do it anyway. The Museum of Jurassic Technology hinges upon your capacity to revel in the sublime, in the interstices of empirical reality and the miraculous. As Lawrence Weschler puts it:
the way it deploys all of the traditional signs of a museum’s institutional authority —meticulous presentation, exhaustive captions, hushed lighting, and state of the art technical armature—all to subvert the very notion of the authoritative as it applies not only to itself but to any museum. The Jurassic infects its visitor with doubts—little curlicues of misgiving—that proceed to infest all his other dealings with the Culturally Sacrosanct.
These little curlicues of misgiving are what make the place the most interesting place in the world, in my view. One doesn’t quite know what to make of what one is looking at. Bill Brown makes the useful distinction between “objects” and “things,” an analytical distinction that hinges not on the material qualities of the item in question, but rather on its triangular relation to both the social context of the subject and to the “generalizable circuits of exchange and consumption” that “produce use value, sign value, [or] cultural capital.” If “objects” are those items we perceive and recognize as familiar without having to think about them – those objects, in other words, that come to us through the typical paths of commodity flow – then “things” designate those material entities that resist immediate recognition or categorization, that emerge when those typical circuits of exchange and consumption are blocked or held in abeyance. It is only through what Brown calls “misuse value” that “thingness” properly emerges; when an object is fetishistically overvalued or misappropriated, dislodging it from the “circuits through which it is what it typically is,” it is only under these conditions, according to Brown, when the universal fungibility of things is interrupted, that “aspects of an object – sensuous, aesthetic, semiotic – […] become legible, audible, palpable when the object is experienced in whatever time it takes […] for an object to become another.”
These moments of thingly dislocation—when things fall behind the bathroom mirror and you suddenly see them anew—are important. They stop being objects and become Things. One last thought: John Locke (the philosopher. Not the guy on Lost) understood this problem when he considered the relationship between empiricism and the senses. If the rules of empiricism make it impossible for the functioning mind to escape the prisonhouse of the senses, there can only be one other way for us to engage the world: through Poetry (or what Locke called “Fancy”). If, on the one hand we have Judgment, which separates and classifies the data of our senses, we also have “Fancy,” which synthesizes and recreates—the very thing that leads to music, dancing, and more generally having a good time.
I align myself with the “Fancy,” the members of which nod and bow toward the awesomeness of science and its powers to make things better in a general way. I prefer those moments of uncertainty, of “mis-use,” of not knowing what the hell is going on.
I never did acquire the pompadour. The grain and quality of my hair was never conducive to the shape, despite years of trying. Unless they’ve remodeled the place, I can only assume that the tube of Bryl-Creem still resides in its forgotten and unvisited crypt, like the unruly and now mostly gone hair at the top of my head.
And here’s a holiday story. It has nothing necessarily to do with what I’ve posted above, but it’s a lovely story about the necessity of fiction (i.e., lying to ourselves about who we are and what we do), love, and the gift. It’s perfect for the holidays. I’m sure you’ve already seen it (or read it—the video is actually better than the verbal form in this case), consider the following question: why do Auggie and “Paul Auster” laugh after Auggie tells his story? It’s not, of course, that difficult to figure out, but that seems to me to be the key to unlock the meaning of the whole episode.