1. A Cure for Nostalgia
There may have been a peak in their numbers beginning with the start of the Industrial Revolution winding down some time after the advent of the computer. I’m talking about a tribe of people who were obsessed with not leaving well enough alone, who couldn’t turn their backs on a crippled appliance or mechanical device. All can be resurrected as something else. These were people who took apart watches, radios, engines requiring combustible fuels, washing machines, blenders and stereos. There was nothing that couldn’t be broken down to its constituent parts which would then be sorted and streamed into meaningful employment in the service of some other gadget. Members of this tribe were the kind of person who couldn’t keep still, who turned gear shafts and car parts over and over fitting them into this contraption or that, even if it meant execution was carried out with Rube Goldberg-like efficiency. My father was such a person, and I grew up in such a household. A tape recorder became a dark room timer in which my father’s voice would say agitate for however many minutes followed by a certain amount of music, a turntable became the foundation of a zoetrope, paper film strips fit into removable brackets, the detached screen door became part of a box-shaped snake house when some were caught in the back yard.
An antecedent of steampunk, the aesthetic of both groups may involve grommets, gears, wing nuts, and moving parts to be visible. Though steampunkers chose varnished wood and claw feet over the streamlined modernism of the post-Atomic age, this was not a requirement for those who prefer to dispense with a certain amount of fuss and just get the job done. We felt right at home in the world of Artemis Gordon’s gizmos in The Wild, Wild West, though the mechanical transformations we lived with were constructed with Bauhausian form=function theory in mind.
There is also an element of longing in this process, that nothing is ever entirely let go of. Nabokov wrote that a speck he removed from his eye when a child in Saint Petersburg still exists somewhere. The Rule of the Nabokovian Eye Speck insures that every single molecule is recycled whether you’re cognizant of its regeneration or not. Identities are in a continual state of flux, electric mixers power a skiff, motorcycle helmets buffer a trampoline, a bicycle pump becomes a long flashlight. The process continues to the point where identity is completely hybridized. In this way, little is lost. It’s an optimistic re-shuffling, a rebirth.
Just when 1972 or 1984 seems irretrievably lost, you have a piece of it still with you, or so you hope. Sometimes the broken Leica remains immovable on a shelf, a roll of black and white film still wound inside it. If you snap open the back, images exposed to the light will disappear forever. The idea that the eye speck is now part of someone else’s fingernail might be an optimistic image or an irredeemably cheerless thought.
In a shop window in Berlin I saw a super-8 projector of molded aqua plastic. A sign read that it was a vintage machine but was working perfectly, and listed the cost in euros. In the basement of my mother’s house is a box of super-8 films, home movies, many turned into glutinous or hardened hockey-pucks, but any that might still be viable could be shown on such a projector as this. Somewhere in the pile of home movies lies coiled footage of one of my sisters bringing the snake house into school for show and tell. My father had to go with her, and as he slid the screen door lid, and lifted the snakes out of their box, all the boys leaned forward and all the girls leaned back.
2. Letters of Transit
Before he disappeared in the desert of Utah, Everett Ruess carved “Nemo 1934” on a canyon wall. He was twenty years old, a romantic traveling alone in the southwest; journals, poetry and a paint set among his camping gear. Nemo was an alias he used, and there have been several interpretations of what the name might have meant to him. Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was one of his favorite books, and perhaps he saw similarities between the expanses of desert and ocean floor. Captain Nemo, both Hindu and Muslim, a man who, as he patrolled the oceans in his submarine, was wracked by longing for his lost family killed under the British Raj. Every gesture of rescue, every time a sea creature was salvaged or lifeline tossed to a slave, reminded him of those he couldn’t save, and launched him into melancholia, playing his submarine organ to giant squid and horseshoe crabs. A second possible reference was to the pseudonym Odysseus used when trapped in the cave of the Cyclops. He called himself, Nemo, No One in Latin, a trick name, a name of erasure, an ‘ain’t nobody here but us chickens’ kind of trick, and it worked on the Cyclops. Odysseus and his surviving men escaped becoming the kind of dinner guests who never leave. The cartoon somnambulist of Nemo In Slumberland, was the most contemporaneously well known No One in the year of both Ruess’ and Windsor McKay’s deaths. That Nemo could shut his eyes and travel further than Ruess, Odysseus, and Verne’s Captain could ever imagine. Eventually, even the inscriptions, carved beneath a pictograph, are long gone, but years later another Nemo signature was found on the mud wall of Anasazi granary in Grand Gulch, though it was a place Ruess was not known to have traveled.
There are people who vanish and disappear, but there are others, like Elvis, who are sighted in unlikely places, sometimes slightly transformed, shadows of their former selves, but still somehow recognizable. Like Ruess, Arthur Cravan—boxer, Dadaist, anarchistic showman—used several alias and forged papers, including the name of his uncle, Oscar Wilde, though he and Wilde never met. His real name was Fabien Avenarius Lloyd, and he could count Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia and Breton among his admirers. If Cravan’s life could be mapped by an animated line it would track a Dadaist journey of false trails and performances half way around the world. Making his way from France to New York in order to avoid being drafted, he continued to spin tales and live the life of a bohemian until the United States entered World War I. Still intent on avoiding conscription, Cravan then fled to Mexico where he met and married the beautiful Mina Loy. They lived in great poverty, finally arranging to go to Argentina, but without adequate funds to travel together. It must have seemed logical to the two impoverished Dadaists that Mina book passage on a ship while Arthur followed her in a sailboat. He never arrived and was presumed lost in the Pacific, but sightings of him continued for many years in New York and Paris. A man going by the name Dorian Hope was suspected to have been Cravan, or Cravan was suspected of being Hope, a wandering poet who sold or claimed to sell papers belonging to Oscar Wilde, which turned out to be forgeries. Another theory suggests that B. Travan, author of The Treasure of Sierra Madre and himself a fomenter of a spiral of pseudonyms, was really Arthur Cravan.
There is an exhibit in the American Museum of Natural History which projects a film of the earth’s surface over a hemisphere suspended from the ceiling. A voice over talks about shifting tectonic plates and what you would see if all the major bodies of water suddenly evaporated: the Atlantic Ridge, the volcanic vents in the Pacific, mountain ranges and deep valleys heretofore unmapped. If this were to happen and to be a survivable event, people could drive out across what had been ocean basins, park the car, go for a stroll, and find all kinds of things. Double-hulled Polynesian catamarans, Spanish galleons loaded with gold from the New World, Arthur Cravan’s humble craft, and Captain Nemo’s broken submarine, complete with organ, library, art gallery, pictures of his murdered family. All damaged goods, no doubt about it, and mere shadows of their former selves, but still worth collecting before the waters wash over once again.
3. Time Machine
A time machine which goes backward could be made of old keyboards, film cameras, windows made of Viewmasters welded to binoculars, waffled walls of Styrofoam burger suitcases insulate the control room, receivers snipped from heavy black dial phones go into service as door handles, piles of cloth-covered electrical cords are wound around cat posts or cut into tasseled curtain pulls, levers and buttons made from typewriter keys, numbers and letters attached to long metal stems are, therefore, already coded and labeled. Going backwards doesn’t require, one guesses, consideration as to how to survive the kinds of elements that are life and death issues when you travel forwards into space. No worries about air pressure, absence of gravity, extremes in temperature. No need for in flight magazines, movies, or unlimited choice of channels, but there is a problem regarding the animated map that shows your journey. One model, the designer suggests, is the film shown in reverse: people jump backwards, grow younger and younger, finally disappearing, buildings and trees melt or are torn down, the earth’s plates shift in unsettling shrugs. But he doesn’t know where to train his lens. There are countless choices, and a multitude of possibilities, as many parallel universes in the past as there are in the future. This is a problem that stymies him. He can’t get it right and yells at his assistant that too much is expected from him in the theory department, and no one has eyes in the back of their head. The assistant silently slips circular cards into a Viewmaster and clicks through scenes of American monuments and landmarks: Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, the Grand Canyon. He’s old to be an assistant, older even than his boss, but that’s the plateau he’s landed on, and there probably won’t be any catapulting to a higher mesa any time soon. The images remind him of a summer road trip his family once took across the country before air conditioning was common in cars, and they drank Tang, the drink of astronauts, mixed with tap water when it was available. As hot as it had been, he wouldn’t mind going back to those weeks, a moment when ‘are we there yet?’ was an answerable question, and happy illusions—the flat earth was the center of the universe—were comfortably in place.