Thursday, January 07, 2021

'In the Shadow of an Urn Commemorating Nothing'

“I wonder why I’m dead intent on adding / this to my modest box collection. I / cannot say what attracts me so to it.” 

I collected the usual things, nothing exotic, as a boy: coins, stamps, rocks, butterflies. I was a conventional kid and probably collected things because other kids did. It was less about greed than aesthetics. I liked and still like pretty things and things that carry an aura of context and knowledge, so I collected triangle-shaped postage stamps from Togo and learned something about that African nation. By collecting coins I learned about metals. Butterflies came equipped with a sub-collection, field guides, which I still love to read. Today I don’t think of myself as a collector of books. Rather, I’m a reader, so of necessity I accumulate them. I don’t buy books as an investment and don’t sit staring at my shelves in admiration.


The lines at the top are from “Collecting,” a poem by Edward Perlman, a writer  new to me. The speaker in his poem has acquired a silver box, the sort of thing a woman might keep on her dresser or makeup table: “A pretty thing, though useless. Vain really.” Decorative boxes are not to my taste but I think I understand the impulse. Their utilitarian value is small but they add a touch of gratuitous beauty to our lives. Just this week I read “Ichabod” (Yet Again, 1909), an essay in which Max Beerbohm collects something most of us don’t remember, travel labels, which he places on his hat box, another once-common, now forgotten object.


“[F]ew are they who have not, at some time, come under the spell of the collecting spirit and known the joy of accumulating specimens of something or other. The instinct has its corner, surely, in every breast.”


Labels are Beerbohm’s madeleine dipped in tea. He renders an entire life from these “crudely coloured, crudely printed” bits of paper. Beerbohm reveled in the innately trivial, and by doing so touched on essential human themes – memory, what we value, loss:


"For many years this hat-box had been my travelling companion, and was, but a few days since, a dear record of all the big and little journeys I had made. It was much more to me than a mere receptacle for hats. It was my one collection, my collection of labels. Well! last week its lock was broken. I sent it to the trunk-makers, telling them to take the greatest care of it. It came back yesterday. The idiots, the accursed idiots! had carefully removed every label from its surface. I wrote to them—it matters not what I said. My fury has burnt itself out. I have reached the stage of craving general sympathy. So I have sat down to write, in the shadow of a tower which stands bleak, bare, prosaic, all the ivy of its years stripped from it; in the shadow of an urn commemorating nothing.”

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