2 desks

 2 desks, both chaotic – one fictional, the other historical. Both speak to my current pre-occupation with stories that can be evoked with everyday objects.

The first is described in an excerpt from Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’, which I came across again in Umberto Eco’s book ‘The Infinity of Lists’. It comes from early on in the book and describes the desk of the main character, Tyrone Slothrop, before Slothrop’s life goes all… Pynchon-esque.

There must be cubicles like this all over the ETO: only three dingy scuffed-cream fibreboard walls and no ceiling of its own. Tantivy shares it with an American colleague, Lt. Tyrone Slothrop. Their desks are at right angles, so there’s no eye contact but by squeaking around some 90°. Tantivy’s desk is neat, Slothrop’s is a godawful mess. It hasn’t been cleaned down to the original wood since 1942. Things have fallen roughly into layers, over a base of bureacratic smegma that sifts steadily to the bottom, made up of millions of tiny red and brown curls of rubber eraser, pencil shavings, dried tea or coffee stains, traces of sugar and Household Milk, much cigarette ash, very fine black debris picked and flung from typewriter ribbons, decomposing library paste, broken aspirins ground to powder. The comes a scatter of paperclips, Zippo flints, rubber bands, staples, cigarette butts and crumpled packs, stray matches, pins, nubs of pens, stubs of pencils of all colours including the hard-to-get heliotrope and raw umber, wooden coffee spoons, Thayer’s Slipper Elm Throat Lozenges sent by Slothrop’s mother, Naline, all the way from Massachusetts, bits of tape, string, chalk … above that a layer of forgotten memoranda, empty buff ration books, phone numbers, unanswered letters, tattered sheets of carbon paper, the scribbled ukulele chords to a dozen songs including “Jonny Doughboy Found a Rose in Ireland” […], an empty Kreml hair tonic bottle, lost pieces to different jigsaw puzzles showing parts of the amber left eye of a Weimaraner, the green velvet folds of a gown, slate-blue veining in a distant cloud, the orange nimbus of an explosion (perhaps a sunset), rivets in the skin of a Flying Fortress, the pink inner thigh of a pouting pin-up girl … a few old Weekly Intelligence Summaries from G-2, a busted corkscrew ukulele string, boxes of gummed paper stars in many colours, pieces of a flashlight, top to a Nugget shoe polish can in which Slothrop now and then studies his blurry brass reflection, any number of reference books out of the ACHTUNG library down the hall – a dictionary of technical German, an F.O. Special Handbook or Town Plan – and usually, unless it’s been pinched or thrown away, a News of the World somewhere too – Slothrop’s a faithful reader.”

Pynchon narrates the list in small ways that (maybe) encourage the reader to imaginatively inhabit the desk and draw from it certain conclusions about Slothrop’s character. Nonetheless it is all told through ordinary stuff.

Then there’s Daniel Spoerri’s desk (real-life this time) from ‘An Anecdoted Topography of Chance’:

A piece of white bread; crumbs; a pale-green egg cup; a litre of Vin des Rochers; shell debris; grains of salt; a jar of Nescafé; a box of matches; a match; a pepper shaker; a half-litre bottle of milk; a burnt match; a box of granulated sugar; a carton of Socosel; Fifty- and ten-centime coins; a package of Twining’s Chinese tea; a jar of celery salt; a container of Vanilic glue; one of two square pockets of electric-blue Japanese silk; a transparent container of VR200 glue; a jar of curry powder; a pretty glass jar; a jar of mild paprika; a small,light-blue rubber “bracelet”; a white paper bag; a chunk from the same loaf of bread; a stopper of tricolour plastic; a small aluminium spoon; a quarter of a pound of butter; a glass of wine; a wine stain; a pin; a glazed earthenware bowl; the outline of a plastic bag; a paring knife; a wooden ruler. A worm-eaten joined wooden box containing a knitting needle; a small, cube-shaped sponge; a ball of scrap wire; a white plastic case; a stereotype of a photo portrait; two candle butts; metal stencils; a yellow plastic case; a spool of Tubino white thread; a safety pin; a large screw; a dark blue plastic stopper; a red stapler (Swingline Tot 50); an iron rod; small plastic pyramid; a bent nail; coins. On the box there is a bottle of Tuborg beer. A gold-coloured package; the lock for Spoerri’s room; an alarm clock; some strong black thread; an ordinary knife; a Microminiature Norev model; a green Swingline stapler; the push button for a bell; a very pretty dark blue bottle, a pack of blue toilet paper; a green-ish Bakelite ashtray (with a burnt match in it); a white shirt button; an electric plug; a tricoloured plastic stopper; a sample of Olfran after-shave lotion; a small dispenser; a two-pound container; a jar of powdered coffee; a screw (2.5cm long); a peanut presented to Spoerri; a screw; a stopper from Vin des Rochers; a white shirt button; a white shirt button; a screw; a plastic box; a bottle of Sauzé; a roll of Scotch tape; the corner of a half-litre container of milk; a nail; an ordinary cork; a plastic bottle-stopper; a paint brush; an aluminium tube; a spool that isn’t one; a rusty nail; a ball point pen; a small white card; a paper clip; a bronze token; four-leaf clovers; the cover for the plastic box; Magic Marker; tin sauce ladle; a cigarette burn.

There’s no narration this time. I have just typed up the list of contents (with a couple of changes) from his desk. So it requires a little more effort for the reader to investigate the objects and assign/impute meanings. Nonetheless, when you read on, Spoerri and his friends fill the objects with reminiscences out of which the reader can then curate a story.

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About Bruce Davenport

Museum educator and researcher.
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