· Art, Thought, and Technology on Nicholson Baker's "Up" Escalator ·
Today my two previous posts have prompted a third on footnotes. I'm sorry if apologies are due. I take up from the musical world of footnotes sounded first in Adorno's Philosophie der neuen Musik — and reechoed in Bloch's The Historian's Craft — two added notes sounded by Nicholson Baker in his clever first novel, The Mezzanine (1988). If Ode Owed to the Low Art of Footnotes and Footnotes: From Low Art to High Science make my noted theme old, I hope my variations are at least semi-pleasing. Please consider them an allegro, adagio, and presto "set" — with my belated "movement" being too long here.
Baker's first novel, you may know, describes a man's brief ride at the end of his lunch hour from the ground floor to the mezzanine on an escalator. Although Baker's text meditates on the man's brief ascent and, more, on his own needed noon-time purchase of a new pair of shoelaces, the text so well delineates much of what I have said recently that I have thought to share it — especially since citation and acknowledgment epitomize Baker's key themes, namely, physical-textual-dialectical displacements in vertical space and the old debt of consciousness to "the quotidian" — of art and thought to "the technological-scientific everyday."
Here foreshortened from 3 pages, Baker's notes are just 2 among 49 in a text of 135 pages. So fully "contrapuntal" and loopily "digressive" are they, that you might also be prepared for some slight "misquotation" — recalling my U & I post maybe — since the thought is riffed as subtly, cleverly, and trickily as that of a blues musician on speed. To help you follow, I've indeed had to largoize these notes, cutting them down some. So if you want your Baker "up," consider popping on down fast to buy The Mezzanine. After all, your next job is to recheck my notes.
Although Baker's first note aims clearly to link "shoelaces" and "footnotes," its note-referring sentence — "A glowing mention in William Edward Hartpole Lecky's History of European Morals (which I had been attracted to . . . by the ambitious title and the luxuriant incidentalism of the footnotes* . . . )" — also adds other crucial elements: the central notion, first, that artists and philosophers have quirky habits (I cite just two), and second, repeated news that Baker's narrator had earlier purchased a (Penguin) copy of Aurelius's Meditations, which text provides Baker with an epitomizing theme for all his notes: namely, "Manifestly, no condition of life could be so well adapted for the practice of philosophy as this in which chance finds you today!" Here foreshortened to essentials, then, is the narrator's 46th note:
*In one footnote [he starts] . . . Lecky quotes a French biographer of Spinoza to the effect that the philosopher liked to entertain himself by "dropping flies into spiders' webs . . ." I crave knowledge of this kind of detail. As Boswell said, ". . . Everything relative to so great a man is worth observing. I remember Dr Adam Smith, in his rhetorical lectures at Glascow, told us he was glad to know that Milton wore latchets in his shoes, instead of buckles." (Boswell, Journal of a Tour to the Herbrides, Penguin, page 165. Think of it: John Milton wore shoelaces! ) Boswell, like Lecky (to get back to the point of this footnote), and Gibbon before him, loved footnotes. They knew that the outer surface of truth is not smooth, welling and gathering from paragraph to shapely paragraph, but is encrusted with a protective bark of citations, quotation marks, italics, and foreign languages, a whole variorum crust of "ibid.'s" and "compare's" and "see's" that are the shield for the pure flow of argument as it lives for a moment in one's mind. . . . Digression — a movement away from the gradus, or upward escalation, of the argument — is sometimes the only way to be thorough, and footnotes are the only form of graphic digression sanctioned by centuries of typesetters. . . . It is true that Johnson said, . . . "The mind is refrigerated by interruption; . . . the reader is weary, he suspects not why; and at last throws away the book[.] . . . " ("Preface to Shakespeare.") . . . But the great scholarly or anecdotal footnotes of Lecky, Gibbon, or Boswell, written by the author of the book himself to supplement . . . what he says in the primary text, are reassurances that the pursuit of truth doesn't have clear outer boundaries: it doesn't end with the book; restatement and self-disagreement and the enveloping sea of referenced authorities all continue. Footnotes are the finer-suckered surfaces that allow tentacular paragraphs to hold fast to the wiser reality of the library.
Baker's "finer-suckered" image sounds a profound library note, in effect, that sounds "The Bathos," so to speak, "of the Bibliothek." For though it's happily occasioned by an earlier-mentioned (I'd say "Puget-Sound-locked") "octopus," Baker seems rather to anticipate a higher, but still lower, note — one pardoxically ending The Mezzanine. I'll cite it later myself. But for now, with such a "finer-suckered" grasp, Baker turns himself to a reflective understanding of his 49th note, wherein his narrator aptly invokes some "periodicity" (though I'd more simply call it his "style") "ratings." Baker's referring sentence reads: "It was impossible to predict which of the two, Aurelius or shoelaces, would rank higher in my overall lifetime periodicity ratings upon my death.*"
*I am fairly certain now [he avers] that shoelaces will rank higher. In the course of preparing the present record of that Aurelius-and-shoelace noon [essentially epitomizing The Mezzanine], I lived through a rigorous month in which the subject of shoelace-tying and shoelace wear came up 325 times, whereas Aurelius's sentiment cycled around only 90 times. I doubt very much that I will ever concentrate on either of them again, having worn both of the thoughts out for myself. But these sudden later flurries may not count, since they are artificial duplicative retrievals performed in order to understand how the earlier natural retrievals had come about. The very last instance of shoelace thought happened as follows: by chance, I was flipping through the 1984-1986 Research Reports of MIT's Laboratory for Manufacturing and Productivity at my office, and I noticed . . . the subject of the "pathology of worn ropes" . . .
And then [later at the library], checking the 1984 volumes of World Textile Abstracts, I read entry 5422:
Methods for evaluating the abrasion resistance and knot slippage strength of shoe laces
Two mechanical devices for testing the abrasion resistance and knot slippage performance of shoe laces are described and investigated. Polish standards are discussed. [C] 1984/4522
I let out a small cry and slapped my hand down on the page. The joy I felt may be difficult for some to understand. Here was a man, Z. Czaplicki, who had to know! He was not going to abandon the problem with some sigh about complexity and human limitation after a minute's thought, as I had, and go to lunch — he was going to make the problem his life's work. Don't tell me he received a centralized directive to look into a more durable weave or shoelace for the export market. Oh no! His very own shoelace had snapped one time too many one morning, and instead of buying a pair of replacement dress laces at the corner farmacja and forgetting about the problem until the next time, he had constructed a machine and strapped hundreds of shoelaces of all kinds into it, wearing them down over and over, in a passionate effort to get some subtler idea of the forces at work. And he had gone beyond that — he had built another machine to determine which surface texture of shoelace would best hold its knot, so that humanity would not have to keep retying its shoelaces all day long and wearing them out before their time. A great man! I left the library relieved. Progress was being made. Someone was looking into the problem. Mr. Czaplicki, in Poland, would take it from there [my emphasis*].
*Here is room, perhaps, to say that Baker's last chapter shows his narrator returned from lunch — at the "top" of the escalator — looking down finally: "I looked down," Baker's narrator says, "the great silver glacier to the lobby. The maintenance man was at the bottom. I waved to him. He held up his white rag for a second, then put it back down on the rubber handrail." Permit me, but could this itself be a proper acknowledgement of some "tenor" to his "vehicular ride"? It's a good "high note" to end on, at least, and perhaps "sustain" . . .