Mostly (not) on McSweeney's!

A blog for my academic ideas, more or less.

Two Discoveries

I’ve been back in the British Library this week, after going to Berlin and Amsterdam. I’m working on a new chapter of my thesis, as well as a paper for the Exploding Objects conference at Goldsmiths in September.

Yesterday I read a Borges story that helped me find a new way of conceptualising one of my research problems; today I found (by accident) an interesting precursor of McSweeney’s. I talk about both after the jump.

ANON - LITTLE TINY'S BOOK OF OBJECTS with more than Seven Hundred Illustrations.





















Jorge Luis Borges, “The Congress”; originally published in The New Yorker, November 6, 1971.

You can read the story here. And a commentary on the story, which contains this quote from Borges:

If of all my stories I had to save one, I would probably save the “The Congress,” which at the same time is the most autobiographical (the one richest in memories) and the most imaginative.

I first encountered Borges while writing my MRes at Strathclyde. I thought I’d exhausted all he had to offer me (which was  a lot, not to understate it). I printed a bunch of articles from The Complete New Yorker DVD before I went to Berlin. I hadn’t made much use of it previously.

I didn’t read “The Congress” in Berlin. I read it yesterday.

I tried to find a summary of it. None of them really fit. Then I noticed this one by Borges on the page I took the  above quote from:

“The Congress” is perhaps the most ambitious of the tales in this book; its subject is that of an enterprise so vast that in the end it becomes confused with the world itself and with the sum of daily life.

This summarises its importance for me. Borges is philosophy masquerading as fiction. Borges forces you to think. Borges creates worlds that puzzle. These words do not seem to adequately describe why I like Borges.

The story is about a group of people who meet ostensibly with the intention to create a congress that would represent all of mankind.

The story treats the difference between two concepts. The story treats the difference between determinacy and indeterminacy. (This is to some extent me retrospectively mapping my later connections back onto my first reading of the story.) The Congress of the World is vast, unknowable, infinite. The Congress within the story is (or attempts to be) limited, defined, knowable.

A famous Borges fragment also treats this theme:

…In that Empire, the Art of Cartography achieved such Perfection that the Map of one single Province occupied the whole of a City, and the Map of the Empire, the whole of a Province. In time, those Disproportionate maps failed to satisfy and the Schools of Cartography sketched a Map of the Empire which was of the size of the Empire and coincided at every point with it. Less addicted to the study of Cartography, the Following Generations comprehended that this dilated Map was Useless and, not without Impiety, delivered it to the Inclemencies of the Sun and of the Winters. In the Western Deserts there remain piecemeal Ruins of the Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars. In the entire rest of the Country there is no vestige left of the Geographical Disciplines.
Suarez Miranda, Viajes de Varones Prudentes,  etc.

 The problem in “The Congress” is that the society which the narrator was involved in grows to become too similar to the world. Its leader disbands it upon making this realisation.

Ralph Dumain explains this well:

The Congress of the World tends to an infinite regress of representation; it is impossible to duplicate the world in all its detail and interrelationships, and approaching this limit constitutes a menace. Bosteels asserts that Borges begins many of his stories with a utopian premise, that when carried to its logical conclusion, bears completely opposite results from those anticipated.

I didn’t intend to write so much on this. I wanted to make a note. I find “The Congress” appealing because it resonates with what I’ve been thinking about lately. The difference between unqualified hope/despair and pragmatism/realism. The impossibility of us understanding ‘the world’. The importance of focusing on everyday life. The difference  between deterministic notions of identity and embracing the uncertainty and fluidity of experience. Being and becoming.

I’ll stop now.

“Little Tiny’s Book of Objects”, 1880, London, George Routledge and Sons (The ‘Master Jack’ Series).

(The illustrator(s) is not listed in this book.)

The image at the top of the page gives an immediate demonstration of why this is important for McSweeney’s. The majority of the book is made up of pages which have nine illustrations of common objects. Here is the introduction:

Almost as soon as Little Tiny could talk, she would ask the names of things, and what they were for. So her Mamma made her an OBJECT-BOOK, in which she pasted little pictures of almost every thing she could think of, with its name underneath, and here and there a large picture, in which several objects could be seen. And then Tiny had amused herself for some time with the little pictures, her Mamma would turn to one of the large ones, and ask Tiny to point out and spell the names of all the objects she could find in it. As Tiny took great delight in this, and soon learned what she wanted to know, her Mamma had the book printed for other little folks, and here it is.

There’s an immediate interesting thing here iwth the intentionally deceptive voice. The book is not made up of ‘pasted little pictures’. The book is illustrated in a regular style. (The illustrations are all excellent.) The aspiration towards exhaustion, towards plenitude, is interesting for me.

The most salient point of comparison is the Victorian style that McSweeney’s plunders/mimics/parodies/borrows/reproduces/etc.

I found this book by accident. I am writing a paper on McSweeney’s as object. I was thinking about artists’ books. I searched the British Library Catalogue for book+object. I found this. I thought it was a pop-up book. It is not. But it is still interesting for me.

To close, some of the categories in “Little Tiny’s Book of Objects”:

OBJECTS OF DRESS: Hat, Cane, Glove, Cap, Boot, Shoe, Button-hole, Sleeve, Stud.

COMMON OBJECTS OF THE KITCHEN: Dresser, Range, Oven, Skewer, Roast-Jack, Trivet, Safe, Saucepan, Plate-rack.

COMMON OBJECTS – A COUNTRY WALK: Bridge, Turnstile, Watermill, Rookery, Scarecrow, Dovecot, Foot-path, Wherry, Guide-post.

I am afraid to try and photocopy this book.


Filed under: mcsweeneys, reading

3 Responses

  1. Tanya says:

    I can’t help but be reminded of certain elements of Gertrude Stein’s ‘Tender Buttons.” Stein’s linguistic listings, and specifically the objects in FOOD, echo, for me, the categories in “Little Tiny’s Book of Objects” Interestingly, it isn’t just the format that is echoed, but the illustrations as well…it seems to me that the illustrations in the picture you provide capture perfectly the aura of Stein’s words-I have a vision of what the MILK in “Tender Buttons” looks like, and it is of the same style. And yet it is also more elusive, more abstract- Stein’s lists strive at an exhaustion of possibilities. Linguistic, signified, symbolic possibilities.
    This post got me thinking. Thanks for that!

  2. Kevin says:

    You’re welcome! I haven’t really read much Stein. Maybe this is a place to start for me.

  3. […] Two Discoveries, by Kevin O’Neill, MOSTLY (NOT) ON MCSWEENEY’S! blog, July 21, 2009 […]

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