By Harley Spiller
The author of this paper and the paper itself are, of course, real. Nevertheless it is clear that such persons as the writer of this paper not only may, but positively must, exist in our society, when we consider the circumstances in the midst of which our society is formed. I have tried to expose the view of the student more distinctly than is commonly done, characteristics of my recent past and probable future. I am one of the representatives of a generation still living. In this fragment entitled “Bathtub in the Kitchen,” I introduce myself and my views, and, as it were, try to explain the causes owing to which I have made my appearance and was bound to make my appearance in our midst. In the second fragment there are added the actual notes of others that pertain to certain events in my life as a student and discontent.
Part I: Bathtub in the Kitchen
- I am a healthy man, more or less…. I am a collector of everyday objects that others take for granted. Some say my Guinness World Record accumulation of over 10,000 restaurant menus is a sign of mental illness. I also have dozens of scissors, hundreds of bottle caps forming a beer-drinking diary, and Mr. T memorabilia so cool I was invited to meet my strongman hero live on Jimmy Kimmel. However, I know nothing at all about the fine line between passion and obsessive compulsive disorder. I don’t consult a doctor, and never have, though I have a respect for medicine and doctors. My compulsions to collect are bad, well; let them get worse!
- I have been going on collecting like this for a long time, since 1965. Now I am forty-seven. I live in a 28′x10’ studio in an 1898 tenement on the Upper East Side, with a bathtub in the kitchen. The rent is absurdly cheap. I live here to spite myself. I live here because I do not have a master’s degree and have never been able to make more than $35,000 a year. I look at friends with humongous salaries, who reside in much more socially-acceptable quarters, with swimming pools and indoor basketball courts. I count their money (in my imagination mind you kind reader, for I have no realistic gauge) and determine that, after paying exorbitant rents, dining out nearly every meal, and ferrying about in taxis and jets, they have precious little more “mad money” than I. That makes me feel better. Schadenfreude be damned, I appease myself with the knowledge that I am just as good if not better than they. This is my way.
- You must excuse me for being over-philosophical – it’s the result of two months of readings in philosophy, my first time ever delving into these swirling waters. I’ve heard from my distinguished peers, and buried myself in Rousseau, Smith, Kant, Goethe, Equiano, Madison, Robespierre, Condorcet, Hegel, Marx, Engels and Nietzsche, and now find myself attempting (a feeble student attempt, but an honest attempt nonetheless) to imitate Dostoevsky, my favorite philosopher to date because he places his readers in the ephemeral world of the mind and on a knife’s edge of reality.
- My most abstruse collection, for me and for the precious few I’ve shared it with, consists of posted notes I’ve removed from the walls and lampposts of NYC. It contains close to 100 different entreaties, from the terse to indecipherably-complex amalgams of mathematical figuring, philosophical posturing, and political ranting. Now, having immersed myself in the great philosophes, I understand the collection as existential. Not intentionally pouring water through sieves, these denizens yearn to publish, to be heard, to stop wriggling along like eels and do something to right wrongs (both personal and universal), to better their lot in life, to stand up and not be pushed aside like so much dirt. I save them to preserve their voices but also to prove that I am not crazy. The collection helps me get inside the minds of my fellow bipeds, to fathom such modalities as reclusiveness in the big city.Maybe I also collect this material as a salve for my furious discontent, and have gained some measure of comfort in the knowledge that others are far more furious and discontent. Maybe it’s akin to the way I gain power by withholding wages from underlings. Ahhh, the joys of wallowing in sadness in my kitchen tub. Maybe I save these materials because no one else does, to prove to myself every minute that I am a man and not a piano-key. Someday I hope to exhibit my collection of scrawl in a museum, anonymously, to see what the critics will write about the writings.A friend once called to report he’d encountered the man who covered the city with “phone block escort service” signs, but was rebuffed. I too have bumped into “street authors.” In 1995, I saw a lady dressed in black, the hellish noir of years of unwashed clothing. She was wildly wiping the entire contents of a glue stick on a wall. I watched as she pasted her message on busy Church Street, and was excited to see the same style of ornamental writing I’d seen before, but had only been able to get scraps of because they were so well adhered. This time I got the entire text (see part II), along with a serious case of the heebie-jeebies. The Underground Man seems to have twisted the golden rule into “do unto others as others have done unto you.” Is this also part of my motivation to collect this bizarre material? Rilke has some insight:
If you will cling to Nature, to the simple in Nature, to the little things that hardly anyone sees, and that can so unexpectedly become big and beyond measuring; if you have this love of inconsiderable things and seek quite simply, as one who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier, more coherent and somehow more conciliatory for you, not in your intellect, perhaps, which lags marveling behind, but in your inmost consciousness, waking and cognizance.
The Underground Man also has an answer for me, albeit non-definitive. He believes that “what is most precious and most important is our personality, our individuality.” “Man desires consciously, purposely what is injurious to himself, what is stupid, very stupid; simply in order to have the right to desire for himself – even what is very stupid and not to be bound by an obligation to desire only what is sensible, this caprice of ours may be advantageous more than anything else on earth.” Once my parents gave my older sisters and me some money for the candy machine – I selected Mason’s Dots, my least favorite of all, because I knew my sisters didn’t like Dots either, and so at least I could have all the wretched little gummies for myself
Am I merely one of Shakespeare’s arrant thieves and knaves? Am I notorious without modulation? I don’t know exactly why I treasure this collection so, but it is my way and two times two being five is sometimes a charming thing too. The Fluxus artist Yoko Ono exhibits a fork labeled as a spoon. She created an all white chess set. I want in on the action, too.
- I was having trouble coming up with a theme for this paper. At last, just as I was popping out of the sub-way, inspiration struck. Having no notebook, I found myself on a street corner, writing wildly in the blank spaces of my Daily News (see these actual notes in Part II). Out of the corner of my eye I caught a passerby looking at me like I was nuts. Oh my god, I shriveled, he thinks I’m just like the scribes who write the notes I’ve collected for years. Have I become The Officer’s sworn but ineffectual enemy, Dostoevsky’s Underground Man? Am I, or is this just a hoax? I’m sane because I’m doing this to get a master’s degree from the New School for Social Research in Liberal Studies, so I can advance in my museum career: nonetheless my writing is being conducted in the same manner as many of the people of questionable sanity whose work I collect. This effort to imitate Notes from Underground struck me at an unfamiliar junction, the junction of Newtown Road and Broadway, in Astoria, Queens, but also at a junction of the mind – worrying whether these thoughts will be deemed worthy of a grade or a recommendation of Bellevue. I beseech thee, dear reader, not to commit this writing to the looney bin (for I cannot scratch it out on purpose just to spite myself). Most contemptible of all is my attempt to justify myself to you. And more contemptible than that is my making this remark. But that’s enough, or there will be no end to it…After jotting down my conceit, I took a deep breath and was nearly bowled over by life’s synchronicities. Just the day before I’d had my second-ever encounter with a “scrawler,” a homeless lady wriggling along Montague Street in fashionable Brooklyn Heights, all her worldly possessions bundled and trundled onto two tiny wheels. A brisk wind took a piece of paper away from her, toward me, so I returned her well-folded writings. She smiled and said “thanks – it’s my ‘things to do.’” At least this once I’d done unto another as I’d have had done unto me. Not only that, but a few hours earlier, I’d called my wife in a panic because I’d lost my own “to do” list. It has yet to surface, but if and when it does, my cobbled, stapled palimpsest will go, meekly, into my very own collection.
Part II: A Propos of NYC’s Ungrateful Bipeds
“Man’s ability to curse is the primary distinction between himself and other animals.”
-Dostoevsky’s Underground Man
I take a great risk at telling this story but at least it’s all true (or is it?). Ingesting the work of the great philosophers has changed me. The Underground Man rationalizes about the effect of both philosophy and alcohol, how they change a person’s thoughts and actions. Does the study of philosophy and/or the intake of alcohol create a truth serum? No one can be sure, but they both affect, subtly and surely, the way a mind works. But enough; I don’t want to write more from “the bathtub in the kitchen.”
[The notes of this student do not end here, however. He could not refrain from going on with them, but it seems to us that we may stop here.]
Harley Spiller’s just begun an MA in Liberal Studies. He thanks Professor Noah Isenberg for his inspired presentation of the legendary bear “Modernity and Its Discontents;’ Woody Allen for his nebishly-wry take on Dostoevsky; and the nameless people who post their innermost thoughts on every conceivable surface of Fun City. Harley blogs at www.inspectorcollector.typepad.com