A Raven and a Writing Desk

In 1840 – the year Louis Visconti grew vigorous in his diagrams, striking his heel upon the stone in Les Invalides, a full two decades before his countrymen could feed their dead emperor’s corpse to the porphyry maw – in May, a new essay by a writer better known for his tales of adventure and terror appeared in the back pages of a Philadelphia-based monthly. In “The Philosophy of Furniture,” readers encountered a curious and vehement proposal for a theory of “internal decoration,” the first of its kind in America. Its thirty-one-year-old author, Edgar Allan Poe, sat astride the masthead of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine as an associate editor. He had just seen the publication of his first book of prose fiction, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. It did not sell well.

An extremely minor piece in the body of Poe’s work, located somewhere between fiction and criticism, the essay’s narrow reputation rests almost exclusively upon its final paragraph – a forceful (if not entirely convincing) description of what amounts to an ideal room, “a small and not ostentatious chamber with whose decorations no fault can be found.”

In the course of that paragraph’s 785 words, baffled Americans ran up against a wall of aesthetic assertions so thoroughly self-assured as to threaten the liberties of unsophistication. In all likelihood, Poe’s sentences would refuse to register any local significance until the burgeoning click of photographers could catch up to their technology’s ambitions – commercial ones – and ply their trade in the illustration of magazine pages. For the time being the democratic mind could make neither head nor tail of what Poe had to say. And yet identical concerns were otherwise discernible in, and indeed dominated, the national conversation concerning the literary arts. Just as the American writer felt himself beset by the unshakable influence of English and continental antecedents, so Poe’s haughty enumerations of high style grew from a conviction that Americans must decorate differently than their Old World counterparts. After all, it was Rimbaud’s Frenchness that would permit him to write a poem about a cupboard and accord it the qualities of the elderly, an act impossible to consider in a country as young as America. (So new was the nation that a middle-aged Nathaniel Hawthorne could project his distress on the characters of Hester Prynne and Dimmesdale, who hatch a plan to flee those tottering colonies.) But what is most conspicuous about Poe’s imaginary space, reckoned irreproachable, is its dearth of actual furniture. This makes Poe the first American minimalist, a cockeyed form of the tradition still being practiced today, in which the most essential components are the ones always getting subtracted. “No mirror is visible — nor chairs,” he declares, a little sadistically. “Two large sofas, of rose-wood and crimson silk, form the only seats. An octagonal table, formed entirely of the richest gold-threaded marble, is placed near one of the sofas.”

By this schema, we have a sofa, another, and a table. Plus some art on the walls, a couple of floor-length windows with drapery he mentions, and so forth. But no armchair – no footstool, buffet, or corner cabinet. No chest of drawers, no half-moon of a folded card table. And most resolutely: no desk.

Somehow anticipating Lewis Caroll’s Hatter, twenty-five years later, asking Alice why a raven is like a writing desk, Poe envisaged a room and thought it somehow perfect in distinctly failing to afford himself a place to sit down and work. Not even a low, hard bench squats beside the ungainly eight-sided table. And so for whom, if not its own author, could this room be considered ideal?

Guy Davenport, who rarely missed the chance to remind his readers that a stanza is quite literally a room, looked at this one and read an easy rotation of Poe’s major metaphors. A careful accounting of the signal features of the grotesque, the arabesque, and the classical makes sense of the room as a member of a defined order, and not anomalous. But even a critic as perceptive as Davenport (“The amazing thing is that Poe emphasizes lightness and grace, color and clarity”) didn’t endeavor to address the room’s most blatant lack. This is also surprising, since Davenport was as much a connoisseur of desks as his name would suggest.

In the annals of furniture, we can track the development of the davenport and its metamorphosis through a translation from Britain in the eighteenth century to America in the nineteenth: first as a kind of no-nonsense writing desk, then as a species of the genus Sofa (as we find it in Poe). At first, the shift seems sudden, reckless even, and certainly confounding. Let’s look to a more modern fiction for a clue to its solving.

In Frederick Exley’s 1968 novel, A Fan’s Notes, the down-and-out narrator, “Fred Exley,” allocates an inordinate number of his younger days to lounging catatonically upon a continuum of, yes, davenports. Citing a failure to launch, ongoing mental health issues, and a worsening dependence on alcohol, we can put two and two together to create a visual pun of the defeated writer curled up, not on mother’s couch, but his own fruitless desk. Perhaps it was in just this manner that the fire of Poe’s mind subconsciously confounded the two pieces of furniture. (Daniel Hoffman, in his landmark study of Poe, titled Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe: “How can we tell the reality from its mirror, the world from its picture in a work of art, the image from the image of the image? Poe himself sees that all of our passions, intuitions, thoughts, are susceptible of inversion, may become their opposites.”) It’s as though, having glimpsed an instance of spatial perfection, and startled by its brilliance, he bungled the report: “two large sofas,” rather than one sofa and one writing desk. Or was it two davenports?

In pursuing such a serendipitous chain it isn’t long before one finds at the helm of Guy Davenport’s own prose pieces – the most representative among them: essays that feel like fictions, fictions that feel like essays – writers seated at (if not upon) their desks.

From a story in Tatlin!: “The Dutch philosopher Adriaan Floris van Hovendaal was arranging the objects on his table, a pinecone to remind him of Fibonacci, a snail’s shell to remind him of Ruskin, a drachma to remind him of Crete.”

an essay in The Geography of the Imagination: “A hundred years before the death of Ezra Pound, a week short of the very day, John Ruskin sat down in his red room at Brantwood, among his geological specimens and Scott manuscripts, to instruct the English working man in the meaning of labyrinths, the craftsman Daedalus, and the hero Theseus.”

a story-essay in A Table of Green Fields: “At his small sanded white pine table in his cabin at Walden Pond on which he kept an arrowhead, an oak leaf, and an Iliad in Greek, Henry David Thoreau worked on two books at once.”

and in two collaborations with his friend, the critic Hugh Kenner – The Counterfeiters and The Stoic Comedians, for which Davenport supplied exacting cartoons – we see Abraham Cowley counterfeiting odes at a tiny desk and Samuel Beckett composing Molloy upon the surface of a bare wall in an empty room.

Mr. van Hovendaal, who thought he could slip by in being first on the list, is less a fictitious entity than a Dutch transfiguration of Davenport himself. He is Davenport juiced up on a blend of Fourier, Wittgenstein, and that other philosophical figure distinguished by his indistinctness: Kierkegaard. Of whom, in actual fact, the several pseudonymous authors, editors, diarists, and poets whose bogus names appeared on the title pages of his books outnumber those in which they didn’t. If we’re to believe the man who claimed editorship of the Dane’s most famous work, one Victor Eremita, then the bundle of assorted texts that make up Either/Or really was discovered by accident in the secret compartment of a well-worn writing desk, answering to the exigencies of a testy coachman, and the blow of a hatchet.

It may seem odd that neither Davenport nor Kenner, who read everything and constantly marshaled their insights onto the page, ever mentioned either van Hovendaal or Kierkegaard in their letters. Probably it is no less odd that the closest they came was an allusion (Kenner’s) to Ernest van den Haag, the Dutch sociologist who dared to sneer in the National Review about the economic theories of Ezra Pound. It was Pound, building his own furniture wherever he went – canvas-backed chairs; large, roughshod, hand-planed tables; a triangular writing desk that slid neatly into the corner of a small room – that formed the vortex that caused these two bearers of the torch of high modernism to share an orbit in the first place, remaining at their most deeply fraternal when they could play at the game of exuberant cryptography The Cantos demanded.

Over the span of long and energetic careers, Kenner and Davenport penned hundreds of essays, articles, and reviews for a slew of newspapers, magazines, literary journals, and academic periodicals. One of Kenner’s pieces from 1986, “The Untidy Desk and the Larger Order of Things,” provoked a response (not a take-down, but the rare reverent summation of another’s public thinking) in the Washington Post: “In Discover magazine Hugh Kenner, professor of English at Johns Hopkins and a confirmed advocate of chaos, last year wrote a spirited defense of the messy desk. Kenner considers tidiness not only evidence of an unattractive character (‘clean-deskers measure their vermouth with an eyedropper, walk their dogs by the clock, succor their spouses by the calendar’), but also a practice invalidated by the 80-20 rule, a.k.a. Zipf’s Law.”

So it went that in bookish circles it was Kenner, more mathematical than most of his peers, who sallied forth with the good news. Literary scientists had conducted groundbreaking textual analyses of the distribution of words as they occur in works of sufficient scale. The product of their efforts was nothing less than the statistical revelation of a tantalizing rule: in a text like Joyce’s Ulysses, some choice 40 words – words like the, and, and to – tend to do a full 40 percent of the work. Though this implied a freeing up of the rarer ones – like parallax and unlooped – for more singularly memorable roles, the upshot was a renewed appreciation for the rubble of what is most handy. In Kenner’s analogy, the desk that appears a mess of seemingly unrelated items ranged in seemingly random piles can in fact comprise an active model of a system guided in its efficiency by the same law: the ashtray and the encyclopedia; that book on word origins; disparate volumes of brief lives conducted by Vasari, Aubrey, and Johnson; a carbon copy of the letter just typed and the sealed envelope of a letter just in…. If “use always tends to draw what is used in close,” as Kenner put it, then the well-numbered universe will prevail in prescribing that we labor alongside, and not against, the sometimes crude groping of our intuition. That so that we can do more of the work of work, allowing the pieces to fall into place.

Georges Perec, a Parisian Euclid of letters, of whom it is likely an understatement to describe as obsessed with pieces and their places, once wrote an essay all about his desk:

There are many objects on the table at which I work. The oldest is probably my pen; the newest is a small circular ashtray I bought last week. […] I spend many hours sitting at my desk every day. Sometimes I would like it to be as clear of objects as possible. But usually I like it to be cluttered, almost to excess. The tabletop consists of a sheet of glass 140 centimeters long and 70 centimeters wide lying on metal trestles. It is not completely stable, and it is, in fact, not a bad idea for it to be loaded, or even overloaded, since the weight of objects helps to keep it from wobbling.

For Perec, objects are meant to be found, granted membership to an unseen order, and distributed as a kind of sacred ballast (imagine Newton happily pinned beneath his apple). Describing the process of clearing his desk to clean its surface, he seems on the verge of chanting – “I wipe the glass top with a cloth (that I sometimes dip in a special liquid)” – proceeding to repopulate its territories with the same objects and new objects, in the same places and new places. “Broadly speaking,” he elaborates, “I could say that the objects on my desk are there because I want them to be there. This is not connected solely to their function, nor solely to my carelessness.”

As emblematic as his hair (Einsteinian), Perec’s “Notes on the Objects to Be Found on My Desk” can be read as a primer on his conception of a tenderly piloted universe. The essay also happens to stand as a helpful signpost on the path to his most exceptional construction, Life: A User’s Manual. Long, variously peopled and thinged, assuming a complex structure, the novel is perhaps best understood in light of a story by Jorge Luis Borges.

In “The Secret Miracle,” a Czech playwright, taken for a Jew, finds himself standing before a Nazi firing squad. Less concerned for the sake of his beating heart, the playwright bemoans the simple fact that such an untimely death will keep him from writing his masterpiece. Thankfully, the Borgesian God is a patron of the arts. Preventing the man’s death by fixing him in a state of endogenous creation (the hail of bullets frozen in their flight), an entire year finds its way into the space of a single second – the one that will be his last. Perched thus upon his cerebrum (the seat of consciousness, which comes with a desk, pencils, paper), the playwright gets to enjoy the uninterrupted completion of his work, if only in his mind. This, Borges’ unthinkable deus ex machina, represents nothing less than a kind of holy dispensation in compensation of the time artists lose to repressive regimes.

We know that Borges was well up on Zeno – that the great philosopher of paradoxes had himself suffered at the hands of tyrannical forces. When we recognize that Borges intended for his story to demonstrate Zeno, and that Perec could connect the dots, only then does the basis of Life begin to cohere. Otherwise, how could anyone give rise to such a richly imagined world, only to render all motion impossible? Retained in this stasis of grace, the bulk of Perec’s novel bristles with adjectives and nouns, fanatically detailed descriptions of an entire apartment building of ideal rooms, the better to observe when totally still. Life is to Poe’s “Philosophy of Furniture” as the United States of America is to Plato’s Republic. It isn’t a theory, but a daring hodgepodge of pieces in places: escritoires and treasure chests in studios and belvederes decked out in wallpapers and tapestries: people in Paris, Acapulco, and Kyoto.

For all of Perec’s profusion, for all his exhaustive noticing, commentators have frequently yielded to the temptation to call him postmodern. But if Perec was postmodern, then so was his beloved (and decisively pre-modern) Sei Shōnagon. A court lady of Japan in the eleventh century, Shōnagon’s Pillow Book – the diary she wrote at a short-legged table, seated upon a cushion on the floor – remains lively reading in large part for its ingenious lists. By turns vernacular and poetic (“Alarming-looking things,” “Things that make you feel nostalgic”), the imaginative range of Shōnagon’s meditations-on-the-ordinary spoke directly to Perec’s thingish sensibility. Roland Barthes, touring Japan the same year Foucault published The Order of Things, came away from that island nation sensing that “every object, every gesture, even the most free, the most mobile, seems framed.”

Nine centuries later, Yukichi Fukuzawa – a figure whose influence in the invention of modern Japan is roughly analogous to that of Benjamin Franklin in the founding of the United States – sat down at his schoolmaster’s desk at the university he established in present-day Minato City, not far from Tokyo Bay. As a young man, Fukuzawa had numbered among the first few of his countrymen to journey over the painted waves to the West. He learned Dutch, studying the “books published in Holland with letters printed sideways.” Then came English and the works of Emerson. By the time he reached America and its people, prepared for their words if not their ways, he could sit for a photograph in San Francisco, dine with President Buchanan at the White House, and on a New York avenue catch the eyes, in passing, of Walt Whitman. Back home, he would go on to invigorate his mother tongue with the publication of an English-Japanese dictionary, disseminate his cultural findings in a popular series of reference works (simply titled Things Western), and author some of Japan’s first modern educational textbooks.

In his Autobiography, Fukuzawa recounts the arduous process of cutting out and replacing individual sections of shoji (those lattice-work doors of wood and paper) that had been scribbled upon by his pupils. In the same breath, he recalls the stern prohibition, instituted unavailingly, on the scratching of notes and cartoons into the wooden surfaces of his students’ desks.

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, the author of Rashomon and a notable benefactor of Fukuzawan progress, did not have to set out to learn Dutch in Nagasaki. He read English at home in Tokyo, at the Imperial University, defended a dissertation on William Morris, and completed the first translations of Yeats into Japanese. Borges once said of him: “To strictly differentiate the Eastern and Western elements in Akutagawa’s work is perhaps impossible.”

In 1918, nine years before his suicide by overdose (taking the same poison Stefan Zweig would), he published a Gogolesque story set in the late Heian – a period of Japanese history encompassing the production of both The Pillow Book and The Tale of Genji. Titled “Hell Screen,” Akutagawa’s renovated folktale records the exploits of an artist who has been ordered to paint, for the gratification of the Grand Lord of Horikawa, a picture of Hell. He commences his work with a series of studies and sketches of his apprentices, who are obliged, for the sake of penitential realism, to be bound in chains or bedeviled by an enormous horned owl. In the course of these trials, as a blank screen awaits the artist’s inspired brushstrokes, his studio gradually assumes the aspect of the very inferno he means to depict. Per his apprentices, terrified out of their heads, “Sometimes on his desk were placed human skulls, and at other times silver bowls or lacquered tableware. The surprising things he set out on his desk varied according to what he was painting.”

A little more than a decade ago, members of the small farming community of Inakadate in Northeast Japan took a shine to an unlikely figure. Straddling a white steed and glorious in his bicorne hat, local artists commemorated Napoleon Bonaparte on the vast canvas of a rice paddy. Here was the Little Corporal one last time, the final figure for whom artists the world over had clamored to capture in paintings rather than photographs, let alone liquid expanses of grain. According to Akutagawa, amazingly, “When Napoleon was only a student, he had written on the last page of his geographical notebook: Saint Helena, a small island.” One doesn’t have to wonder what kind of furniture stood upon that damp and desolate rock, in the gloom of the black room at Longwood, where the exiled emperor slowly expired in his own private picture of Hell. There are several lithographs from the period.

Eric Bies is a high school English teacher in California. His work has appeared in Essay Daily, and his poem, “I Cannot Save My Own Skin,” won the 2022 Aquarium of the Pacific Poetry Contest.

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