The Simplicity of Objects or, How I learned to Love Kipple
by Tom Jacobs
They were the serious toys of the men who lived in the dead world of sunshine and rain he had left, the world that had condemned him guilty.
~ Richard Wright, “The Man Who Lived Underground” (1942)
Sometimes when I step from one room in my apartment into another room, I have the distinct sense that there is somehow more stuff than there was before. It’s as if a bunch of stuff has just magically appeared while I was gone for a few moments. Here is another book. There is another trinket or fossil or object of some small interest to me. Where did it all come from? I must have bought it. I suppose I did. Why? Hard to say. Loneliness? Personal fascination? What am I going to do with it? Not at all sure.
I will try to get around to reading the book but most of it is, in a purely technical sense, useless. It’s just stuff that I buy because I like to look at it and hold and feel the weight of it or because it gives me some small pleasure to be able to say I “own” it.
Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers of yesterday's homeopape. When nobody's around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you go to bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up the next morning there's twice as much of it. It always gets more and more.
~ Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
Back in the day when Don DeLillo was somewhat reclusive and not very public, I saw somewhere that he was going to give a talk about his new book, “Falling Man.” From the time I read “White Noise” in college, I realized this was a guy who got it. Or maybe it was just that I sensed that he was talking directly to me and that we shared a private sort of fraternity. I assume everyone has had this experience when an artist or a poet or a novelist seems to be speaking directly to you and without mediation. Even if they themselves weren’t aware of it, they are speaking directly and, slightly more dangerously for, you.
So I got to his speaking engagement about two hours early. In case you think ill of me, there was a dude who had gotten there even earlier than me, which I thought was crazy (who shows up two and a half hours early just to hear a dumb talk?). So we stood there, awkwardly together and alone. I don’t know why I didn’t engage him in conversation. I vaguely remember getting a strange vibe from him, though, and thinking, “how can DeLillo be speaking directly to both him and me both?” Then I noticed he had a paper bag full of first editions and realized that this guy was not someone who had read a passage of DeLillo’s and who had stared off the page with his mind boggling in recognition and admiration. This guy was a collector. Maybe that is why we didn’t speak to each other, although I am a kind of collector too.
Once we were allowed to enter the auditorium, my strange friend and I took seats that at the center of the front row. Finally DeLillo took the stage and my heart thrilled that I was about to share space and oxygen with this man who completely and clearly understood every little thing about me and my unarticulated conviction that despite the progression of time and history and technology, we are still in some essential way in the same position of the cavemen gaping in wonder at the strangeness of living in this universe.
As he ambled up to the podium, I was immediately struck by a few things. He was very, very thin. He looked a lot like a textbook nerd from a John Hughes movie. Also, he wore mom-like jeans awfully high and bore his cell phone on his belt in one of those little attachments that I associated with the Boy Scouts. But his eyes—the eyes that you can so plainly see in his author photographs—burned and blazed with a kind of secret intelligence and vision that was mildly unsettling.
Somehow I expected a figure louche and sexy. Although he was neither of these things he was remarkably eloquent about violence and about how we perceive it. He read his work and then responded to questions of various interest with an enor was wildly smitten and in the end he was louche and sexy. Somewhere I have a tiny notebook where I madly scribbled everything he said as best I could.
After his talk and the applause, everyone lined up to get their books signed. The guy who showed up earlier than I did prompted a hand motion from DeLillo to an event planner-type person and a whisper in an ear. The event-planner person then loudly spoke to the queue: “Mr. DeLillo will not be signing any other books than his present one. So kindly don’t ask him to.” Several people visibly slumped and with visible bitterness shuffled toward the exit. Standing there in the queue as the collectors left I thought about what I would say to him in the five or so seconds that I would be granted. I decided that I would ask him to sign the book “from one gashouse scrapper to another.” This is the vaguely insignificant line from the first chapter of Underworld:
Look at Durocher on the dugout steps, manager of the Giants, hard-rock Leo, the gashouse scrapper, a face straight from the Gallic Wars, and he says into his fist, “Holy fuggin shit almighty.”
It’s not by a long shot the most eloquent passage in a novel full of heart-breakingly beautiful passages (like this one, which actually speaks to my fascination with this line: “The crowd, the constant noise, the breath and hum, a basso rumble building now and then, the genderness of what they share in their experience of the game, how a man will scratch his wrist or shape a line of swearwords.”). But it’s a line that spoke to me and resonated and endured for whatever unfathomable reason such things resonate and endure in any of us.
So when I finally got to “meet” him, I asked him to write: “from one gashouse scrapper to another.” I know it doesn’t make sense—he was referring to Durocher and not entirely fondly or happily, but it’s a line I liked. I finally got up to talk to Mr. DeLillo and asked him to write “from one gas house scrapper to another.”
He looked at me blankly and asked “What?” I repeated the phrase. He responded, “how do you spell ‘scrapper?’” If things had gone precisely as I imagined he would be sitting in a limo on his way home from the talk that he didn’t particularly want to do but ruminating on and remembering that one guy who “got it,” who remembered the one line from his novel that no one else remembered or noted and would ask his assistant to get me on the phone so that he could ask me if I would be his friend and would I be interested in having dinner sometime.
I was kind of crushed. He was about to write “gashose scraper” until I corrected him. It’s now an awkwardly signed first edition and it sits proudly on my bookshelf. Useless in a way, but full of underground meaning and maybe some weird sort of economic value somewhere down the road. But for now the book sits on my bookshelf mute, withholding a mildly interesting story that will probably only ever be known only to me. Although by telling you this, I’m kind of wrecking the whole thing.
I often think that if I came home to find my house burgled and everything stolen, that I would feel not loss but relief, liberation even. Take everything! Relieve and liberate me from my stuff, my kipple, which propagates promiscuously. For some perverse reason I don’t even lock my door. . Other than my computer, which holds the records of most of my verbal and visual history, what would I miss? Nothing much really.
There are maybe a few things that matter to me, though.
Like my mastodon tooth. But, again, let me explain.
I hold in my hand a mastodon tooth. I bought it on ebay several years ago and it is one of the few objects that matter to me because on the one hand it is just a thing, but on the other, it is a Thing, a thing with a particular radiance and aura that only derives from its secret history and the ways this history is woven into other, less obvious histories.
“Mastodon” is derived from the Greek word μαστός “nipple” and ὀδούς, “tooth,“or “nipple tooth,” which is in and of itself interesting, but the reason I bought this tooth and the reason I am holding it right now has to do with a story that has to do with the stories we tell ourselves about this country, a story that links Thomas Jefferson to the influential French naturalist, Georg-Louis LeClerc, Comte de Buffon.
It’s a story about stories we tell ourselves, and more specifically about how de Buffon’s theory of “American degeneracy,” with its assertion that the atmosphere and environment of the New World basically sucks and has never given rise to any creature worth paying attention to. It’s also a story about Jefferson’s attempt to use the recently unearthed fossilized remains of the mastodon as a kind of “up yours” to Europe, since we have gigantic charismatic megafauna here that could kick European megafauna’s asses,”-type of story. This tooth is implicated in one of the earliest efforts to shape an American identity, an identity predicated upon a giant animal that, at the time, was thought to be carnivorous and also one of the largest mammals to ever walk the earth. Just holding the tooth of that was once in the maw of a creature (probably in Florida) walking the earth some 10,000 years ago makes my heart beat faster.
What makes this object interesting to me is that it is part of a story that we tell ourselves about who we are, even if these stories are a bit silly.
The correction of prose, because it has no fixed laws, is endless, a poem comes right with a click like a closing box.
–William Butler Yeats
The thing about our relationships to things and to language is that we talk about things as though they were edgeless and as if they have containable meanings. Words bevel and abrade and it’s a rare moment when things happily pop—we rarely experience the satisfaction of hearing the click of a well-made box. “The world is all that is the case.” Which leads to “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” This is maddeningly correct.
Stories and poems and essays are never really done, are never really finished, and never really provide that satisfying click. Stories and essays and poems are never properly finished, they are abandoned. Objects, on the other hand, offer the possibility of the click. What is wanted is the sensuousness of the click.
And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little bit of money, you know. Don’t you know that? And here you are. And it’s a beautiful day…
I was probably twelve or so when my mom threw out all of my Star Wars figures. This was not a mean-spirited thing and, in truth, I was probably a spoiled child in many ways Nevertheless, my star wars figures meant a lot to me. These were the days before action figures were bemuscled and badass and built like brick shithouses. Luke Skywalker didn’t have huge pipes; Han Solo’s guns were quite modest; Princess Leia didn’t have boobs all out of proportion. It was a different era. I actually slept with these plastic figurines. And I don’t think I was unique in that regard, but at one point my mother informed me that she had gotten rid of most of my Star Wars shit. I was far away and there was nothing I could do about it.
At first I felt vaguely weepy. Then I felt sad. And then I felt a bit angry. Ultimately I succumbed to some variation of nostalgia as I tried to acknowledge these things as irretrievably gone.
Still, I saved a few things. They are on my window. I can’t say that I play with them any more, but it makes me happy to see them.
Each of us have species of my Star Wars figures, my mastodon tooth, my giant squid beak (which I haven’t previously mentioned but which is crucial to all of this). We keep these things and hold them close because they embody secret histories that matter. They are the substance of things lost and hoped for. Like love, like everyday life, like the change in your pocket, they sing of the spiraling and ringing and harmonic descent that is the heartbreakingly beautiful song of life, of March, of loss and of possibility. They are the residues of your having passed through.
All the fragments of the afternoon collect around his airborne form. Shouts, bat-cracks, full bladders and stray yawns, the sand-grain manyness of things that can’t be counted.
It is all falling indelibly into the past.
~ Don DeLillo, Underworld
He’s right: every goddam moment is going to fall indelibly into the “sand-grain manyness of things that can’t be counted.” It’s hard to know how to feel about this, and there is no simple anodyne. If there is any sort of vaccine or treatment or therapy it is to learn how to be together with others in time, without feeling the need to Instagram it, without reference to how the experience might reverberate on social media. There is the distinct threat that we will come to think of all of the moments when we are burning with the hardest, gem-like flame, when we are inhabiting the world with the most sincerity—that these moments will be structured and shaped by the ways we might express them on social media like facebook or Instagram or whatever. It is Susan Sontag run amuck.
If, as Sontag notes, “to photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge — and, therefore, like power,” well, then we are in a difficult situation. It becomes increasingly difficult to feel without gesturing outwards, towards the ethers.
This a passage from a much unloved novel, but it’s one that registered and resounded for me. I won’t tell you where it’s from, and maybe the passage creates its own context (but if not, I’ll say this: it’s about a nearly geriatric man who has had every privilege and has tried to do something with that. It is from a book that suggests that the writer doesn’t understand anything about race or the politics of colonialism. But even so, it profoundly moved me when I first read it, oblivious to all of these thing.
What you need to know is that the protagonist has fucked it up badly at this point, his ignorant efforts to help in the “developing world” have coiled back and made a mockery of the whole project. But here he is in a completely frozen Newfoundland with a child, feeling the possibility of possibility:
So we were let out, this kid and I, and I carried him down from the ship and over the frozen ground of almost eternal winter, drawing breaths so deep they shook me, pure happiness while the cold smote me from all sides […] and the hairs of my beard turned spiky as the moisture of my breath froze instantly. Slipping, […] I told the kid “inhale.” […] I held him close to my chest. He didn’t seem to be afraid that I would fall with him. While to me he was like medicine applied, and the air, too; it also was a remedy. […]
Laps and laps I galloped around the shining and riveted body of the plane, behind the fuel trucks. […] I guess I felt it was my turn now to move, and so went running—leaping, leaping, pounding, and tingling over the pure white lining of the gray Arctic silence.
DeLillo signed his book and both failed and surpassed what I had hoped for. It sits next to my mastodon tooth and my saved Star Wars figures. And none flinches at the other.