08 September, 2007

Gray Cloth

At the Library the other day I was sitting next to a young chap of Asian descent. He was reading Paul Scheerbart’s novel The Gray Cloth; on his desk was Michael Wigginton’s Glass in Architecture, and Mallgrave and Ikonomou, eds. Empathy, Form and Space: Problems in German Aesthetics, 1873-1893. The girl on my right was reading Ezra Pound’s Contributions to Periodicals and Paul Kristeller’s Renaissance Thought and its Sources. (True enough—I am nosey.) I was bored, so I decided to strike up conversation with one of my neighbours. Now Renaissance Thought is not Kristeller’s best book, and the Pound looked pretty dull too. So I chose the Asian chap. Excuse me, I said quietly, pointing to the white volume in his hand—Are you working on Scheerbart?

I was hoping to surprise him. I mean, when you’re working on someone like Scheerbart, you can’t expect to meet too many kindred spirits, can you? I was ready for some awkward debate, or at least some shared secrets. Scheerbart was a damned interesting fellow—poet, theorist, mystic, Expressionist associate. In another life I might have learnt German and written a thesis on him. (There’s still time.) I was even ready to talk about Empathy, Form and Space, a collection of antique essays on the psychology of art, which I read earlier this year.

No, I don't think so, he says, with a refined accent matching his preppy neatness. I’m working on glass in architecture. This (he gestures to The Gray Cloth) is a. . . strange book—very episodic.

It is an odd response. What's strange about the episodic? He'd been chuckling a couple of times while reading the novel, and it does have a certain light charm. And it is, undoubtedly, a strange book—the vessel for a colour-mysticism along Kandinskian lines, a volkish take on philosophical science-fiction—but not, I would have thought, for its narrative structure. Perhaps I misinterpreted him. Perhaps he was only caught off-guard.

Still, I was caught off-guard too, and I ended up mumbling—I found it a bit disappointing, actually. This was true, but I was also trying to provoke more of a response from this suave young character. My gambit did not succeed. He merely smiled indulgently and said I think I'd best be getting back to my work now. And so he did.

For what it's worth I don't believe I'd have had any better luck with the girl—she had a rather stern face. But what is it about young dudes in the British Library? They're not a friendly bunch. Well-dressed, too well-dressed, especially the women, and full of a terrible self-seriousness. They're in the library, doing their work, and are not to be interrupted. I lament! Can't they tell they've got a live one here? (How many have even heard of Scheerbart—let alone read his novel? Shouldn't that alone put me in the 'intriguing' category for anyone interested in glass architecture? Maybe I ought to have mentioned the epic poem I once wrote on the subject.) Don't they long to share and be challenged—and, even better, outside the formal structures of academia? Do they not find, as I do, that soupçon of camaraderie—even possible camaraderie—the most exciting of all things? Are they so flush with fascinable and inquiring acquaintances, that the appearance of another fills them only with boredom and distaste?

Christ, who are these people poring over obscure books, so satisfied?

30 comments:

John Cowan said...

They probably like to read, a concept alien to you, and they think a reading room is the place to do so, rather than to be chatted up by a stranger of dubious morals.

Gawain said...

and appearance. you should see Conrad's suits. but no, Conrad, the answer is NO, people do NOT want camaraderie, they don't know how to do camaraderie. alas. otoh, on the other hand, i am surprised you are surprised by the outfits BL readers wear. I was surprised by the outfits in London in general and did not think the BL crowd stood out in any way.

Sue said...

They're young. You're not so. Full stop.

Language said...

People do not go to libraries to achieve camaraderie. That's what bars are for.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Does one 'achieve' camaraderie? I find this rigid separation of functions totally ludicrous--smart persons take opportunities when they arise, not when it's best convenient.

G: not surprised by the clothes--delighted in fact--'too well-dressed' only in a pragmatic sense, not an aesthetic one.

Conrad H. Roth said...

And Sue, I should have added perhaps that my expression 'young dudes' was not accidental. Contra the generalisations of John and LH, which smell a bit prescriptive to me, the older men I've talked to in the Library have been delighted to share their work and their thoughts with me. There seems to be a real generational divide.

phaneronoemikon said...

a taste of your own medicine, perhaps. Well...

Is Lawrence Upton still there? His writing can be fun if you are are a generous soul, which i am. Tell him hi!

The Gray Cloth oddly enough reminds me of Stanislaw Lem..

think of Scheerbart's "Color Sickness"..

I'm reading about Lovis Corinth
today. I especially like his use of armor as I have recently been reading the Pyhrr and Godoy
text on Filippo Negroli and his contemporaries..

Since my mind is still filled with images of the painted hills unit of the John Day Fossil beds I will no likely be dreaming of vibrant fictional natives later on today

in crazed and crackled mud armor..
perhaps listening to Pink Floyd's
obscured by clouds..

Helloo

Comm-Rod..

it's odd the talk of clothing
here, w/ respect to the text mentioned itself..

Conrad H. Roth said...

My own medicine? I don't know Upton, I'm afraid. Nor, in fact, Lem. Nor really Corinth. Nor Negroli. So you've got me there!

phaneronoemikon said...

"meaning-eddie-sign"

look through the "S", O Scholar

skull ar(s)

s-(colors)

c?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps he recognized you for the yellow-perilist you would appear to be! In that case, the decision was the correct one.

Anonymous said...

No, Mr. Roth, not all "smart persons" are aroused by what for you is apparently a convenient opportunity. Some folks see a preppy Asian, others see an occasion to be avoided.

Conrad H. Roth said...

'Yellow-perilist'? Am I being accused of racism, merely for mentioning this man's ethnicity? You should be ashamed of yourself.

Gawain said...

"People do not go to libraries to achieve camaraderie. That's what bars are for."

I said people are not interested in camaraderie. :)

Anonymous: Why do you moralizing types always shoot from behind the corner? How about standing up and letting yourself be counted -- since the principles are so high-minded?

Language said...

I was not entirely serious. I probably would have talked to you. But I would have been reading entirely different books.

Lily Roth said...

I'm very confused by anonymous and the "yellow-perilist" comment. What, exactly, does this mean? First of all, as I discovered when I moved to Britain from the US, "Asian" can mean a variety of different things...
Secondly, why would an innocent description of someone invite such judgemental vitriol? Mr. Roth didn't use any denigrating adjectives. Is any description involving appearance or ethnicity out of bounds now?
As it happens, I can rightly be described as "Asian" as well, among many other ethnicities, and I wouldn't object to being described as any of them!

Mrs. Roth

Michael said...

I'm surprised that no one has mentioned what seems obvious to me. It is that very few people pursue learning simply for the gratification it affords in its own right. They do so as a means to some end - to get credentials, which will help them to get preferred employment, which will help them to get money, with which they hope to buy what will gratify them.

That sort of person views his reading as a means to an end, and of no interest apart from its efficacy as such. The fellow thought he had a job to do, and your attempt at conversation was an interference and distraction from it.

The older people you have found to be delighted to share their work and their thoughts with you probably have achieved at least a modicum of economic and professional success, and do not view what they are doing as such an urgent task, or perhaps as a task at all. They may indeed be reading because they have leisure to do so and they enjoy it.

Anonymous said...

Taken along with the highly indignant "how dare these young upstarts refuse my offer of enlightened interlocuteur" tone of your husband's commentary, what part of "satisfied", "indulgent",
"not a friendly bunch", "full of a terrible self-seriousness", "too well-dressed" "preppy neatness", "suave young character" doesn't add up to, if not denigrading, then an easily construed distaste? Add an ethnic qualifier to the mix, shake vigorously and voila, a cocktail to be served only in select company.

ps inventing words ie. "fascinable" is normally frowned upon even under conditions of BL duress.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Anon: Oh yes, criticise a group of people, and happen to add that one of them is non-white, and bang! you're a racist.

"if not denigrading, then an easily construed distaste"

Denigrading? Fabulous portmanteau--but doesn't the racist etymology of its elements bother you at all? As for 'distaste', well done Einstein--but I was referring to 'young dudes' (and dudesses for that matter), not 'young Asian dudes'.

""fascinable" is normally frowned upon..."

Er, by whom?

---

Michael: Yes, I think that's ultimately what I'm lamenting.

chris miller said...

I can't even remember the last time I chatted (or was chatted) up at the library. (and I go almost once a week)

I still have this grade school respect for the library as a sacred place where NOBODY is supposed to talk -- and whenever someone does -- it brings out my puritanical disdain.

But I have had an ongoing fantasy story I've been composing on-and-off for twenty years that begins with a chat in the library stacks - where the hero -- a bookish young man like I used to be -- is interrupted in his study by a beautiful, partially clad, other-worldly young woman who invites him to a party
thrown by her mysterious friends in a private room above a seedy Greek restaurant, the "Mount Olympus", in Toronto.

Maybe I'll finish it someday -- but as I just told Gawain, I have a hard time writing fiction.

Arnold said...

If you've ever read Machen's The Three Impostors you'll know it is a very bad idea to strike up conversation with strangers in the Reading Room. You never know what might happen.

Conrad H. Roth said...

"I still have this grade school respect for the library as a sacred place where NOBODY is supposed to talk -- and whenever someone does -- it brings out my puritanical disdain."

Now this I can identify with; I tend to peer moodily at anyone chatting for long periods. But that wasn't this fellow's beef, and if it were, it could have been easily solved.

Anyway, good luck with your story...!

Anonymous said...

You will have noticed that it was lily roth who first used the word "denigrate" (correctly spelled) not I. Nor did I mention the R word who's card I hold dearer than many who would no doubt accuse me of casting spurious glances your way. You say, "happen to add". What a tortuous thought coming from a textualist to whom happenstance can only be so much anathaema. If his ethnic makeup was of no practical importance to the aggrieved gist of your commentary, why mention it at all (and most pointedly in your first sentence)? For that matter, why is it that we were left in the dark concerning our young Poundian's ethnicity? A fault of unreligious consistency, of a variety?

Uncouth minds await a dictionary entry for your "fascinable"?

Lily Roth said...

For Mr. Miller...

Ah, yes, library stacks are wondrous, magical places where almost anything might happen. Also, they have a certain lonely creepiness to them. When I was toiling in the Univ. of Chicago Regenstein stacks for the Preservation department, roaming through the heavily used, but still mysterious East Asian stacks of the same library, and combing the Science and Technology stacks as an intern an the Library of Congress, I dreamt up several scenarios for horror stories set in the stacks...

Mrs. Roth

Conrad H. Roth said...

Anon: No, no, you're right; and when I mentioned that the volume in his hand was 'white', I intended that as a subtle counterpoint further highlighting the fellow's wicked nigritude. As you have correctly observed, when dealing with a 'textualist', every detail is of the highest importance.

fascinable: 'Able to be fascinated, prone to fascination'.

Lily Roth said...

Ach, I can dissemble no longer! The keen and penetrating eye of anonymous has seen all. His or her bold questioning has laid bare our deepest secret. Mr. Roth and myself are, indeed, "yellow-perilists" (although we prefer the less judgemental term "yellow-challenged").
Mr. Roth's wan complexion and my own milky whiteness (with its yellow undertone) are QUITE unsuited to the brilliant shades of yellow worn by more fortunate folk. Sigh.
We, alas, are relegated to other, lesser, colours. Mr. Roth's claims to sartorial splendour do not allow him to wear such an unflattering shade, whilst I am unable even to wear gold jewellery, such is my unfortunate complexion.
Do not despise us for our malady...we have feelings every bit as sensitive as our yellow-attired sistren and brethren.

Anonymous said...

Very well, though I remain less easily dupable.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Suit yourself--but remember, the non-dupes err.

Otto van Karajanstein said...

You know, one of the things I've always liked about our little corner of the blogosphere is the conspicious lack of trolls. There goes the heimat...

I only have to wonder - is this anonymous interlocutor Canadian? That mistaking of erudition for arrogance and/or snobbery and descriptive flair for prejudice is a well-worn part of our national discourse.

Conrad H. Roth said...

No, American, or at least living in America. I'm afraid hysterical idiotism is a global disease...

Otto van Karajanstein said...

schade.