[Image: Remedios Varo, “Papilla Estelar”]
I met the autodidact outside the world’s oldest library. That’s how he introduced himself to me: the autodidact. With a definite article, as though he were the only one. He was sitting outside a cafe, left hand curled around a tiny cup of coffee, and as he introduced himself he didn’t get up, instead remaining exaggeratedly slouched in his seat. Against the flatness of the chair back, his body gave the impression of a Fibonacci spiral. This I know for sure, because I would later try to copy it, many times. His burgundy shirt was several sizes too large, so when he stretched out his arm out for a handshake, it gave the appearance of pulling back a stage curtain. “I’m the autodidact,” he said. “I’m learning everything ever written down.”
I, although I didn’t say it, was at the world’s oldest library for purposes of time travel. For the last few years I’d had some trouble with time. Sleep had become difficult, so I’d taken to eating all meals in the strangest and most lonely hours of the night. Conversations, too, had become tricky. While admittedly I’d never had much of a gift for talking, I knew I was becoming increasingly incoherent. The words themselves were fine, but the facts moved jerkily from place to place, even backwards. I had to concentrate on keeping everything chronological until my interlocutor would nod and smile and say that they really had to be going. It wasn’t that I hadn’t tried to get things in order, move things forwards. I really had! I’d moved house, quit several jobs, yet somehow I’d remained the same, more or less, for years.
The world’s oldest library left a deep impression on me. It was very grand, for starters. There was an enormous central courtyard flanked by arcades five times my height; on the floor, glistening monochrome tiles were set into rows, creating a kind of visual magic that drew the body forwards, away from the street and towards its dark, cool entrance. Out here, the sunlight left no secrets, but in there, away from light and visibility, anything felt possible. The building itself was sturdy and eternal, its brilliant white walls and arches like bones in a desert. Yet inside many of its ancient books were fragile, pages ready to crumble at the touch of an acidic fingertip. They, unlike the building, were maintained by life support machines, nursed by humidity and temperature monitors.
I took my pilgrimage to the library in January, the month of new beginnings. The oldest library, I imagined, would provide a starting point to insinuate myself into chronology’s stream. The only problem, I discovered, was finding the exactly correct starting point: I stood in one spot with my feet together, looking straight ahead, and tried to calibrate my new perspective. The floor tiles helped, but instinctively—this is all I had to go on, after all — everything felt wrong, so I took one step to my right. Still wrong. Another step. It was while I was calibrating that the autodidact called over to me: “What the fuck are you doing?”
So I told him, as best I could, about chronology and how I could only eat at night. I trailed off, I think, while I was explaining how long to bake a potato, that true done-to-perfection point between fluffy and dried out. The silence I’d left behind hung thickly and I felt a flush of shame on my cheeks.
“Good advice,” said the autodidact. “I’ll, uh, have to remember that. I’m the autodidact, by the way. I’m here to learn everything ever written down.”
“Oh, right,” I said.
“I learned the technique from Sartre. Well, not personally, of course. From a book. I’m reading everything that has ever been put into words, starting with the letter A.”
“You mean alphabetically?”
“Alphabetically, exactly, yes.” He then held up both palms and half-smiled; the artificiality of the gesture made me wonder if it had been rehearsed. “Look, I know what you’re probably thinking. The alphabet was invented as a way of making sense of things, right? With all these little graphemes as building blocks for describing the world. But it turns out they actually are the world! Look at DNA, or the periodic table. Within those 26 symbols is your whole body, everything.”
I wondered what could be the best response to something like this. It all seemed so complete as it was.
“And besides,” he continued, “it’s better than learning everything by topic, where you’re always at the mercy of other people’s opinions. So-and-so said this about free will, which then another so-and-so responded to, and then someone else responded to that. Blah blah blah. It’s a thought prison. This way, you can make up your own mind. It shuffles the facts out of order.”
He was, however, stuck on the letter A. Apparently there were a lot of things that fell under this letter, what with it also being an indefinite article. “But that’s fine,” said the autodidact.“I mean, I’m a bit behind, but I’m still young. There’s plenty of time.” This was when I noticed that the autodidact was, indeed, young. Not much older than me at all. Something about his burgundy shirt and miniature black coffee had obscured this.
“But what happens if you die before you get to Z?” I said.“Or if you get to Z but new stuff beginning with A or B gets published?”
At this, he let out a barely perceptible sigh, so I decided to let the subject drop.
For the remainder of my pilgrimage, as the autodidact studied alphabetically, I studied the autodidact. I was amazed by this absurd man. The way his fingers would glide under lines in a book, with such certainty of purpose, before halting at particular words. The gesture alluded to some complex network of information concealed in his mind, two taps of a fingertip securing yet another pin in place. It was around this time, although I couldn’t say when exactly,that I began to copy him: the posture, the declarative upward palms. He would say things about Augustine of Hippo and Adorno. About aesthetics and autoimmune disease. None of these ideas bore any relation to one another, giving his speech a syncopated and fragmented rhythm, like verbal jazz. A sewing-machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table, or whatever it was the surrealists used to say. When we would drink coffee together, I would order the same as him — black, in a tiny cup. He would always bring the cup to his lips far too early, when its contents must have been far too hot. I copied this too, and my tongue would sting and blister.
My first cleaning shift after I returned from my pilgrimage was early in the morning, in a grey and anonymous office. Despite the unsociable hours, or perhaps even because of them, I didn’t mind these shifts. Nobody was around, meaning I was free to cut corners, do a bad job. If I was feeling good, I’d maybe slip a couple of things, just small things, from people’s desks into my pocket. And this morning, I was feeling good. As I ran the vacuum cleaner, I slipped into an alphabetic reverie — avant-garde, Abel’s theorem, autonomy — and tried imagining myself cradled by neatly-ordered knowledge. As I wiped a damp cloth over coffee rings, I thought about aesthetic interpretation, and tried to apply it to a line from As You Like It: “Time travels in diverse paces with diverse persons. I’ll tell you who time ambles withal, who time trots withal, who time gallops withal, and who he stands still withal.” I pictured time as Goya’s Cronus, eating his son like a hawk at a rabbit, gruesome and wide-eyed. I hoped, if it came to it, I would be brave enough to gallop with such a creature.
Another good thing about the office shifts is that they finished early, meaning I had the rest of the day to myself. I would usually have a nap in the mid-afternoon, but those long hours between the necessities of work and sleep were glorious and elastic, free hours shared only with the other out-of-joints: the shift workers, the unemployed, the alcoholics. I would often devote these hours unreservedly to museums because, being places for things like timelessbeauty and preservation, they seemed to stop the flow of time even further. I could hide away within its folds.
After my cleaning shift, but before I got into all that trouble at the party, I slipped on my new burgundy shirt and went to the art museum, where a Jean Arp sculpture especially held my attention. This fat little star of plaster, almost figurative, had a round absence cut out from its centre. White and smooth and calcified, at first glance it reminded me of the world’s oldest library. I felt that same pull towards its dark, cool absence, that same sense of possibility that comes from nothing. This sense of comfort, however, fell apart the longer I looked. I saw that this was a lonely object, desperate to be filled, and its emptiness had made it sinister. Its skeletal coolness, its total lack of corporeality, became a source of horror, as though the flesh had been torn violently away from its bones. This little figure had suffered, and for a moment I considered smashing it into pieces.
To top up the money I made from cleaning, at night I also worked for a catering company. This work was easy enough. I would hold a tray of champagne flutes, and then offer these to party guests. For some reason they would always leave their empty glasses in the corners of the room, meaning they were often trampled by careless heels. After the guests had all gone, they left behind glittering, jewel-like trails of broken glass. The company often catered for art galleries and once, after a party, several cleaners had swept up an entire artwork by mistake. Piles of glass-like crystals eradicated with a dutiful flick of the wrist. When you’re a cleaner, you’re required to straighten out what others leave behind, so that’s just what they did: the disorder and the chaos and the mess, all of that was gathered into bin bags. The artist replaced the crystals the next day.
Exactly one week after the incident with the Jean Arp, I was given a shift at a gallery called Solid SPACE. The word ‘space’ was capitalised. I wondered why they hadn’t capitalised ‘solid’, when it seemed, to me at least, to be the more obviously capitalizable word. But I needed the money— pilgrimages are expensive, after all — so I took the shift.
The catering staff that night, even more so than usual, was a fairly motley crew. When I arrived, an enormous, bear-like man was standing at the back of the kitchen. His wrists and forehead were bound with strips of red cotton, and there was a very square beard in the centre of his chin. He was enthusiastically nodding in the direction of a mousy, sincere-looking woman, whose deep voice contradicted her diminutive frame. They looked very odd, standing next to each other like that.
“The image carries immeasurable power,” the mousy woman was saying. “Beauty is a pleasure in itself, of course, but we must also be open to the grotesque, even the cruel or sadistic. Look at Bacon, or Artaud.”
“Absolutely,” said the bear-like man.“The body in pain is mortal. We’re all heading six feet under in the end, eh? Just big walking bags o’ compost!” At this, they both laughed emphatically in the same low, booming tone.
I recognised the catering manager as he walked hurriedly towards us, looking, as he always did, sick with worry. He was forever pushing his round, hard-looking glasses up the bridge of his nose, and his crumpled face looked as though it would wit her into nothing at the first minor inconvenience. “Thanks, everyone, for being on time and committing to this quite demanding event,” he said, which made the whole thing seem ominous, as though catering a gallery event were somehow courageous, like going to war or being an Alpine rescuer. “It’s a big one for us, so please be at your best.” He pushed his glasses up his nose again. “Grab a t-shirt from the pigeonholes at the back, and make sure you sign it out in the book. It’s your responsibility to keep it clean, as you know, so take it home with you at the end of the evening and wash it.” And with that, he broke eye contact and pulled his phone from his pocket. None of us seemed sure if he was finished, so we lingered just in case. “They’re just at the back there,” he said, without looking up.
The autodidact and I had only communicated once since our last day together. I had sent him a message the day after I got back, telling him that I was reading A Concise History of the Art of Angling, the first book in Wikipedia’s alphabetically ordered list of books. He replied, a week later, telling me about the first surviving example of the written word in English: alu, etched onto the side of a cremation urn. “It most likely means ale, but as a metaphor for something. The Anglo-Saxons would use runes rather than Latin script so to us it looks a bit like frn. But I think it still counts as an A. Either way, they don’t really know what it means. I don’t suppose it’s possible to know, at this point.” I replied almost immediately, but didn’t hear back.
In one corner of Solid SPACE were some neatly folded clothes arranged into possible outfits. This was an installation called Anxiety. A flannel shirt sat on top of dark blue jeans, and next to that a chiffon summer dress was paired with bright yellow sandals. Twelve outfits were arranged as though points on a clock, and at its centre, a grey three-piece suit was stuffed with something, giving it the uncanny appearance of a real human body. The arms and legs pointed to four different piles of clothes. According to the wall text it was something to do with 9/11. In the other corner there was a video projection of the artist knocking his forehead against a full-length mirror, like two goats in battle. This one was called Antagonism, and when it finished it would play all over again from the start. Aside from these two things, the gallery was completely empty.
I’d been on shift for around an hour when the autodidact sent me a message. It was short and confusing, as if it were simply one fragment of a conversation we’d been having all day. It said, “I read that the guy who worked his whole life on the human genome project realised, at the end, he’d learnt nothing at all. I think I know what he means. Have abandoned alphabet project. This will probably be the last message from me, by the way. Getting pretty busy these days. Take care.”
The sour, fermented smell of the champagne tray was making me feel sick. Worse, I now also had no idea what to do about my own alphabet project. Verbal jazz! How stupid. The whole thing hadn’t even been his idea, but Sartre’s. My God, that champagne was foul-smelling. My body’s centre of gravity started to wobble underneath me, but I felt unable — whether from a sense of obligation or something more physical — to move. I steadied myself against the back of a chair.
“Isn’t it just so devastating,” said one woman about Anxiety. She was wearing what looked like an enormous brocade balloon, its stiff fabric billowing so much that her body barely looked like a living person at all, but rather a putrefied version of a person, swollen with rot that pulled the skin taut. Walking bags of compost.
“Yes, it really speaks to our cultural memory,” said her companion. He too was wearing something complicated and fleshy. “The use of found objects here is really a stroke of brilliance.”
The autodidact had been right about one thing. I had heard, during this party, three other people say the exact same thing about cultural memory. So-and-so said this or that, which someone else repeated, and then someone else. A thought prison, he’d called it, but I’d never been one for such histrionics. A repetition compulsion, perhaps, with all speech trapped inside other quotation marks. I felt a snap of realisation inside of me. This endless repetition was how time would pass without anything ever changing.
How can a person move forwards? This is a complicated question without a simple answer and, you must remember, I had limited tools at my disposal, standing as I was by the buffet table. I really do want you to remember this. All I had was Cronus, and his wide cannibal eyes. The time, finally, felt exactly correct. A singular trajectory guided my thoughts like an electrical current. First, I would scream. Then fling this tray of glasses across the room, each shard potentially diamond or dagger. Would they tear through that revolting brocade balloon, opening up the skin to see what spills out? Could the sharpest, largest pieces be held against the softest part of a neck?
In these thoughts, I was interrupted by the sound of cutlery tapping against the side of a glass. It was time for the artist to do his speech.