A spatulate depression, part I – Speaking with the dead and distant

Since my series of posts on Key 23 and the Nth Degree – really about personal commitment and library work – I’ve been digging a little deeper into my thoughts on these issues. If it all gets too heavy, jump back into my blog archive and read something fun about roller derby, or something about drinking your way to better librarianship. Ka pai?

One of my favourite novels is Vladimir Nabokov’s Bend Sinister. I guess it’s a pretty minor work of his, and I only ever picked it up because I liked the goofy, almost Hitchockian cover of the Penguin paperback.

Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister
Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister

The book’s about Adam Krug, a philosopher from an Eastern European country which is under a totalitarian regime. He fights the tyrannical dictator Paduk at great personal cost, building to a bizarre climax in which Krug is saved from a moment of grief and rage thru a bit of metafictional deus ex machina. It’s really not the best thng Nabokov ever wrote. It’s kind of M. Night Shyamalan for the Times Literary Supplement set, but I still love it – and partly for that cheat ending, which includes the narrator (Nabokov himself?) uttering the lines:

I could also distinguish the glint of a special puddle (the one Krug had somehow perceived through the layer of his own life), an oblong puddle invariably acquiring the same form after every shower because of the constant spatulate shape of a depression in the ground. Possibly something of the kind may be said to occur in regard to the imprint we leave in the intimate texture of space. Twang. A good night for mothing.

I love that whole paragraph. It’s so perfect, right down to that mad ‘twang’ and reference to Nabokov’s lepidoptery, it sets me on fire. [Pale Fire?] It’s something that you’d never, never say in real life – it’s the essence of wanky literary-speak – and yet, it has a poetry. The vision of the puddle, the imprint in the ground, filling with water – seeing this on the page, knowing it to be a trick of words – to me it’s the essence of why we read. To see that constant depression filled once again with a glint of life.

I was at university at the tail-end of all that poststructuralist, il n’y a pas d’hors-texte, kind of jazz – the idea that when you look at any symbol or system of symbols, you never get to the bedrock of a ‘reality’ which the symbol represents, because reality is itself a construct, a text. It probably didn’t do me much good, intellectually – sooner or later reality does intrude on even the most sceptical scholar’s life, in the form of a thunderstorm or a toothache or a malicious landlord – but it did make visits to the archive special for me as a young researcher. They were fantastic voyages through words, in reckless search of historical reality.

Reading the letters and jottings and even psychiatric case notes of figures long dead brought me as close as the historic record can to lives unreachable outside of time travel. I guess I had an easier task, in some ways, than the Renaissance and medieval historians I hung out with – the people I studied, “my guys” (mostly men, yes, tho’ I’d just like to say here that Gertrud Bing is an unsung badass of art history), were twentieth century figures, sometimes barely older than our own grandparents. The past had not quite had time to fully fog over the threshold between their lives and ours.

Of course, I could never be sure that I’d reconstructed the past accurately, or that my arguments were fair – I was pouring my own imagination into that spatulate depression – but a sense of moral duty guided me. At times I was surely a little self-righteous, but I always hoped that the burning need to do right by the dead would guide me, as I filled the imprint they left with my own puddle of conjecture.

But then, Nabokov uses that passage to write about a fictional character, Krug, who is living in a novel that is full of word games and explicit pointers to its own artificiality.  He’s distant from us not because he’s dead but because he’s fictional. And I started to think how those little puddles form in all kinds of spaces, in both fact and fiction. We get to pour our imagination and insight into these imaginary vessels, fictional characters, as well as the long gone human beings whose traces have survived in the archives.

Thinking of imaginary vessels, fictional characters, and time travel: I just finished watching the current season of Doctor Who – pretty awesome, I have to say. Where the current Star Trek movie makes a hideous fist of recasting and replaying elements from its own past to little consequence, Steven Moffat and his gang managed to rewrite the history of their own show in a way that is fresh, forward-thinking, uncomfortable, and anything but nostalgic.

Seriously, don’t watch this unless you’ve caught up on your Doctor Who. Spoilers!!!

I’ve loved Doctor Who since I was very young. I think I can just about remember Peter Davison turning into Colin Baker (although I thought it happened in the middle of an adventure with Daleks and a lighthouse, also I may not have been able to distinguish Baker from Jon Pertwee). I definitely had nightmares about the Vervoids (one of the lamest and most ludicrous monsters from the original series). The only thing that compared to Doctor Who was Indiana Jones, the renegade scholar who threw himself into action and adventure around the world.

So, of course, it’s ridiculous that for the longest time I didn’t believe that ‘role models’ had an influence on our lives:

Matt's role models

I think that these characters, from the most corporate end of pop culture, also represent Nabokov’s ‘spatulate depression’. Writers, directors, entire production teams have shaped these characters, gently hewing a space for them from the ground which we then pour ourselves into.

This space is not all that we are, and I don’t want to say that it determines our personality, but when a fictional character calls to you, it’s like a vocation, an inspiration, a choice about how you choose to live which has come to you from outside. And that, the vocation or mission of the librarian, will be my topic next time on the blog.

In the meantime, you can read more on librarianship, archives, and the fine line between words and reality in “Key 23 and the Nth Degree.”

3 thoughts on “A spatulate depression, part I – Speaking with the dead and distant

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