Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Kathryn Schulz

The Valley of Lost Things

with 2 comments

Patti Smith

Patti Smith once lost her favorite coat. As the singer-songwriter relates in her memoir M Train, it was an old black coat that had been given to her by a friend, off his own back, as a present on her fifty-seventh birthday. It was worn and riddled with holes, but whenever she put it on, she felt like herself. Then she began wearing another coat during a particularly cold winter, and the other one went missing forever:

I called out but heard nothing; crisscrossing wavelengths obscured any hope of feeling out its whereabouts. That’s the way it is sometimes with the hearing and the calling. Abraham heard the demanding call of the Lord. Jane Eyre heard the beseeching cries of Mr. Rochester. But I was deaf to my coat. Most likely it had been carelessly flung on a mound with wheels rolling far away toward the Valley of the Lost.

The Valley of the Lost, as Smith explains, is the “half-dimensional place where things just disappear,” where she imagines her coat “on a random mound being picked over by desperate urchins.” Smith concludes: “The valley is softer, more silent than purgatory, a kind of benevolent holding center.” It’s an image that first appears in Dot and Tot of Merryland by L. Frank Baum, who describes the Valley of Lost Things as “covered with thousands and thousands of pins…A great pyramid of thimbles, of all sizes and made of many different materials. Further on were piles of buttons, of all shapes and colors imaginable, and there were also vast collections of hairpins, rings, and many sorts of jewelry…A mammoth heap of lead pencils, some short and stubby and worn, and others long and almost new.”

I encountered the story of the black coat in the recent wonderful essay “When Things Go Missing” by Kathryn Schulz in The New Yorker, in which she, like Smith, uses the disappearance of physical objects as an entry point for exploring other kinds of loss. After a very funny opening in which she discusses a short period in which she lost her car keys, her wallet, and her friend’s pickup truck, she provides a roundup of the extant advice on finding lost items, including the “suspect” rule that states that most objects are less than two feet from where you think you left them. As it happens, I’m familiar with that rule, which appears in How to Find Lost Objects by Professor Solomon, which I’ve quoted here before. Personally, I like his idea of the Eureka Zone, the eighteen-inch radius that he recommends we measure with a ruler and then explore meticulously. It’s a codification of the practical insight that our mistakes rarely travel far from their point of origin. Joe Armstrong, the creator of the programming language Erlang, makes a similar point in the book Coders at Work:

Then there’s—I don’t know if I read it somewhere or if I invented it myself—Joe’s Law of Debugging, which is that all errors will be plus/minus three statements of the place where you last changed the program…It’s the same everywhere. You fix your car and it goes wrong—it’s the last thing you did. You changed something—you just have to remember what it was. It’s true with everything.

By this logic, the Valley of Lost Things is all around us, and we’re wandering through it with various degrees of incomprehension. As Daniel Boone is supposed to have said: “I have never been lost, but I will admit to being confused for several weeks.”

Charles Fort

I’ve been thinking of the loss and retrieval of objects a lot recently, in my unexpected role as biographer and amateur archivist. When I began my research for Astounding, I had to start by recovering countless scraps of information that must once have seemed obvious. Even something as basic as the number and names of John W. Campbell’s children turned out to be hard to verify, and there are equally immense facts, like how he met his first wife, that seem to have vanished into the Valley of Lost Things forever. (Not even his own daughter knows the answer to that last one.) I also have thousands of seemingly minor details that I hope to assemble into some kind of portrait, and they’re vulnerable to loss as well. I’ve spoken before about the challenge of keeping my notes straight, and how I’ve basically resorted to throwing everything into four huge text files and trusting in its searchability. Mostly, it works, but sometimes it doesn’t. During the editing process for my Longreads article on L. Ron Hubbard, a very diligent fact checker sent me questions about more than fifty individual statements, for which I had to dig up citations or revise the language for accuracy. I was able to find just about everything he mentioned, but one detail—about Hubbard’s hair, of all things—was frustratingly elusive, and it had to come out. Similarly, as I work on the book, I’ll occasionally come across a statement in my notes that I can’t find in my sources, and I have no idea where it came from. This has only happened once or twice, but whenever it does, it feels as if I’ve carelessly let something slip back into the Valley of the Lost, and I’ve let my subject down.

But as Proust knew, it’s in the search for lost things, however trivial, that we also find deeper meaning. As a biographer, I’m haunted by Borges’s devastating putdown: “One life of Poe consists of seven hundred octavo pages; the author, fascinated by changes of residence, barely manages one parenthesis for the Maelstrom or the cosmogony of ‘Eureka.’” I’ve often found myself obsessed by exactly those “changes of residence,” but it’s only in the accumulation of such material that the big picture starts to emerge, and the search often means more than the goal. If there’s one thing I’ve learned along the way, it’s that a dead end almost always turns into a doorway. Whenever I’ve had to deal with a frustrating absence of of information, it invariably becomes a blessing, because it forces me to talk to real people and leave my comfort zone to find what I need, which never would have happened if it had been there for the taking. The most beautiful description I’ve found of the Valley of Lost Objects is in The Book of the Damned by Charles Fort, who calls it the Super-Sargasso Sea:

Derelicts, rubbish, old cargoes from interplanetary wrecks; things cast out into what is called space by convulsions of other planets, things from the times of the Alexanders, Caesars and Napoleons of Mars and Jupiter and Neptune; things raised by this earth’s cyclones: horses and barns and elephants and flies and dodoes, moas, and pterodactyls; leaves from modern trees and leaves of the Carboniferous era—all, however, tending to disintegrate into homogeneous-looking muds or dusts, red or black or yellow—treasure-troves for the paleontologists and for the archaeologists—accumulations of centuries—cyclones of Egypt, Greece, and Assyria—fishes dried and hard, there a short time: others there long enough to putrefy.

As Baum notes, however, it’s mostly pins. The paleontologists, archeologists, and biographers comb through it, like “desperate urchins,” and pins are usually all we find. But occasionally there’s a jewel. Or even a beloved coat.

On Walden Pond

leave a comment »

Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau is a public menace, and he needs to be stopped. That’s the impression, at least, that we get from the critic Kathryn Schulz’s puzzling essay in a recent issue of The New Yorker, a savage takedown with no apparent news angle aside from the author’s determination to bury, not praise, Thoreau. Schulz tackles the task with relish, pointing out that “the real Thoreau was, in the fullest sense of the word, self-obsessed: narcissistic, fanatical about self-control, adamant that he required nothing beyond himself to understand and thrive in the world.” Let’s set aside the point, for now, that literary masterpieces in any genre aren’t likely to emerge from any other kind of personality: Walden, Schulz writes, is the work of a misanthrope “whose deepest desire and signature act was to turn his back on the rest of us.” The article’s attitude toward Thoreau’s antisocial tendencies is indignant, even strident, and it’s even stranger when we realize that it occupies the same prominent position in the same magazine—and was presumably the product of the same editorial process—as Jonathan Franzen’s equally baffling essay on climate change, in which he more or less advised the rest of us to resign ourselves to a “human catastrophe” to make room for more deserving species. And I can’t help but feel that Schulz has chosen a peculiar target for her rage, at a time when Thoreau, for all his flaws, stands as a necessary counterexample to the unsustainable impulses that surround us on every side.

I could tell that I was going to be out of phase with Schulz almost from the beginning, when she refers to the opening chapter of Walden, “Economy,” as “one of the highest barriers to entry in the Western canon: dry, sententious, condescending, more than eighty pages long.” I’ve always found it riveting—it’s possibly the most heavily underlined section in any book I own—and I revisit it on a regular basis, while I rarely feel the need to reread Thoreau’s nature writing, which Schulz likes. But there are other early warning signs that we shouldn’t expect a fair hearing. Schulz dismisses Thoreau’s commitment to the abolitionist movement, including his work as a conductor on the underground railroad, in a single paragraph, and she concludes: “But one may reach good ends by bad means.” (If history has taught us anything, isn’t it that we need to be more concerned about the opposite?) “His moral clarity about abolition,” Schulz writes, “stemmed less from compassion or a commitment to equality than from the fact that slavery so blatantly violated his belief in self-governance.” Yet that abstract conviction led him to take positions and actions at considerable risk to his own safety, while the “compassion” of so many others, then as now, resulted in nothing more than moral self-congratulation at a comfortable remove. Walden, Schulz says, is “a fantasy about escaping the entanglements and responsibilities of living among other people,” but in practice, it resulted in a greater sense of obligation and responsibility than many of the social and economic platitudes with which we surround ourselves today.

Marker for Thoreau's cabin

Which isn’t to say that Thoreau isn’t a deeply problematic figure. The core of Schulz’s position is familiar, and basically correct: Walden is a work of imaginative literature, not reportage, since Thoreau wasn’t nearly as removed from civilization as he claimed to be, and he wasn’t able to stick for long to the mode of living that he pressed on his readers. Schulz concludes: “So perhaps a sufficient argument against Thoreau is that, although he never admitted it, the life he prescribed was not an option even for him.” (There’s also the fact that even contemplating such a retreat is a luxury afforded to very few. E.B. White’s famous quip that Thoreau wrote as if “all his readers were male, unmarried, and well-connected” carries more weight than Schulz’s essay does in its entirety.) But this also misses the point. “His behavioral prescriptions are so foolishly inconsistent as to defy all attempts at reconciliation, while his moral sensibility is so foolishly consistent as to be naive and cruel,” Schulz writes, but this is a charge that can be leveled, with just as much reason, at other moral exemplars who have manifestly asked for the impossible. Walden is less like a practical handbook than what the Jesus Seminar calls a case parody, an admonition so exaggerated—like “Turn the other cheek”—that it exists only to shock us out of our old assumptions. A more reasoned approach, of the kind that Schulz would evidently prefer, would have had about as much impact as such arguments usually do, which is to say none. Thoreau overcorrects toward an extreme vision of simplicity because so much of America, both in his time and in ours, skews just as strongly in the other direction.

And it’s only through a conversation between extremes that we get at the kind of reasonable middle ground that Schulz finds acceptable. Thoreau wrote that even owning a doormat might mean succumbing to a kind of materialist temptation, of which Schulz says: “Only those with no sense of balance must live in so much fear of the slippery slope.” But this misunderstands how balance arises in the first place. The kind of moderation that Schulz—and I—see as the best way of living doesn’t emerge from aiming constantly at the midpoint: it’s an averaging out of extremes, a pragmatic slalom that allows for a play of competing forces that otherwise would shake themselves apart. (In fact, the best defense of Schulz’s essay is that its shrill attack on Thoreau might be the corrective we need to get at a more realistic portrait, which doesn’t make it any more convincing on its own.) “Restrictions and repudiations can just as easily complicate one’s life,” Schulz writes, as if this were a flaw in Thoreau’s argument, when in fact he belongs to a long tradition of ascetics who recognize that strict rules of simplicity, requiring constant vigilance, are the only way to generate the right kind of complexity. “The hypocrisy,” Schulz says, “is that Thoreau lived a complicated life but pretended to live a simple one.” Yet I don’t think the reader comes away from Walden with any impression other than that of a man of enormous inward complexity enabled by the outward constraints on which he maddeningly insisted. Thoreau’s example, even if it was inherently unattainable, points the way forward. In the words of the man who owned the land on which that cabin was built: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark.”

Written by nevalalee

October 21, 2015 at 9:41 am

%d bloggers like this: