Yesterday evening while I was in the living room, scrolling through Felix O’Brien’s Telegraf posts (more on him later), I glanced and noticed that Charrington’s “artpiece” was running a clip from the 1955 BBC teleplay of Orwell’s 1984, showing Winston working away changing recorded history at the Ministry of Truth. Seems like a strangely appropriate coincidence, but 1984 is, after all, a classic, and references to it are everywhere. We only noticed them more now that, thirty-six years late, Orwell’s novel has been moved to the non-fiction section. Clearly our oligarchs are finally making good use of Orwell’s book within the book, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism.
Winston’s job, you may remember, was to rewrite the past to suit the present oligarchy. Winston got his assignments sent to him through a pneumatic tube, and he spoke his edits into a funnel attached to a speech-to-text machine called a speakwrite. Presumably a subterranean machine transduced his speech into physical movements and implemented the changes in the official record. That film, that book, was very retro-futuristic, rather like Charrington’s furnishings. Meanwhile his art-piece moved on to a clip from Fahrenheit 451 .
My current job is not unlike the one performed by Orwell’s hero. I am one of the few people left in New York City who goes to work, besides to-go food servers, grocery cashiers, Covid nurses, sanitation workers, firefighters and cops. The job was the only decent paying one I could get out of college to fit my degree in History with a specialization in deciphering handwriting. I digitize archives. I’ve been working at this for several years, but now with the lockdown it is, according to some obscure logic, a top priority to digitize everything, and they have doubled my salary (hazard pay). I am, oddly, considered an “essential worker” at the New York Public Library.
Although any monkey could run my machine, my skills are applied in the recording of details about the notes in the margins and other accidental qualities of the physical objects I am scanning, which may provide clues about origins and previous owners to future historians. I work for the many tentacled Octopus, and although I do not like, at all, the idea of working for a big tech company, I liked the opportunities the job offered for traveling around the world to visit collections in small libraries and churches.
After returning to New York after three years in the Baltics and Siberia (more on that later), I managed to get a gig in the Casaubon collection at the NYPL, which preserves the work of Percy Shelley—the most radical of Romantics and political revolutionary—and some manuscripts relating to his more popular wife, gothic novelist Mary Shelley, of Doctor Frankenstein fame, as well as the papers of her father, universal suffragist and direct democracy advocate, William Godwin, and of her mother, first feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft. What a family.
Percy is credited with the thoughtcrime of peaceful civil disobedience later copied by Thoreau, Ghandi and MLK. I did not know much about Percy before getting the gig. I am learning from the curator of the collection. I’ve had access to papers and books of some pretty impressive authors for this job, but this assignment, in particular, seems especially important now. Percy’s The Masque of Anarchy is about the lawlessness of those in power. Think of it as rhymed verse describing the motley parade of leaders on your nightly newcast. It features personified concepts like Murder, Fraud, Hypocrisy, and most grotesque of all, Anarchy who claims, “I am the Science,” no wait, the actual line is ‘I AM GOD, AND KING, AND LAW!’ in all caps. I reckon Percy must have argued with his father-in-law, who was an anarchist, about the term he used for his poem. Sheer naked power without lawfulness is fascism, not anarchy, the absence of invested power. But ultimately it doesn’t matter what ideological label you start with; it all tends to devolve into slavery for the proles.
Yesterday I had to pause to stoke the quiver of hope that ran through me as I scanned the original manuscript that recorded the lines,
`Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you —
Ye are many — they are few.
Ultimately Percy’s advice to the downtrodden was to go ahead and let them murder a few hundred peaceful protesters in broad daylight so that others would be inspired to non-compliance. When they start killing children that should really do it.
We’ll see. Childhood vaccine deaths will probably be reinterpreted alternately as fake news, extremely rare, and necessary collateral damage for the greater good. What’s so frustrating for someone looking back at history is to see how many times we recreate the same problems over and over. You know what they say about power and yet we keep handing it over to those who least deserve it. Right now the Tech Lords are gathering up all the reins, and don’t let Octopus’s original motto, “Don’t be Evil,” fool you. It’s what they’ve always had in mind. Just as the Washington Post would help Democracy Die in Darkness and the New York Times would decide All the News that’s Fit to Print.
In theory I scan these items so that researchers anywhere in the world will have access to them. The convenience may be a poor trade-off for forgoing the experience of sitting in the elegant paneled library of the Cassaubon Collection. The same ancient stand of chestnuts had provided the wood that covered the walls, made the chairs, the desks and the book cases. It was lovely. But with more sadness, I imagined that once every scrap of paper and bound book is digitized and researchers no longer ask to see the originals, the content could be altered or memory-holed at any time. It was out of this fear that I had been keeping a copy for myself of everything I scanned, which was quite illegal according to my contract with Octopus.
I had to be very careful not to draw suspicion from Julia, the curator. She occupied the desk at one end of the room facing me as I worked mainly at a conference table in the center of the room. I was obliged to wear white felt gloves while examining some of the papers and use a pair of paper tongs to turn the leaves. I often didn’t use the tongs because it seemed unnecessary since I was wearing the gloves. I dislike rules that don’t make sense. Looking at her to make sure she wasn’t looking at me, I turned the paper over by hand.
At that moment she looked up. “Winston?” she cocked her head.
“Oh sorry, right, the tongs.” I picked up the tongs and showed them to her. She went back to her typing.
Julia was very protective of the collection I was pirating. She made me nervous.
She was forty-something, fit, petite. She had dark straight shoulder length hair with parted fringe. She had the long thin neck and sculpted jaw of someone who was long-distance runner or yoga instructor or both. Light complected, with spray of freckles across her nosebridge, she looked much younger than her colleagues, who curated other collections or worked in fundraising. The dozen or so all had worked together at the venerable library for decades. They seemed a lot like an order of nuns and priests. Julia had done her PhD in early feminism. Mary Wolenstonecraft was her special interest, and to be honest, most of the researchers that visited or made requests were looking for Mary Shelley’s or Wolenstonecraft’s papers not Percy Shelley’s.
At first I didn’t like Julia, maybe because she was so beautiful and older and more educated than I am, and I knew in my loins that she was way out of my league. Or maybe it was because she wore a black face mask that said, in white capital letters, WOMEN’S RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS, as if she were shouting it at me.
When I first introduced myself to Julia, out of habit I extended my dangerous hand, violating the six-foot safety zone between us and putting her life at risk. She hesitated for a moment and then grasped it, limply. But her hand was warm.
After seeing her hesitation, the rest of the day I self-consciously tried to put six feet between us (the same distance we put bodies under, incidentally perhaps), but after a while I noticed that she herself didn’t mind the rule—the Casaubon Collection was housed in a rather tight space—so I abandoned it. Good thing, because, as mentioned, I have trouble keeping senseless rituals.
Nevertheless there remained a barrier of hesitation, of uncertainty, of not knowing what is acceptable, socially. In addition to the old new fear of saying the wrong thing, one’s physical presence was now itself a threat. How would we ever recover from such paranoia? While it might be natural to shrink from someone hacking up phlegm, we were shrinking from healthy people. Every culture—just about, I reckon—has greeting traditions, kisses, hugs, or handshakes that must have been selected for the utility of exchanging microbes. Are we done with that now?
After our introduction, Julia fell into her docent routine and guided me through the books that I was to scan. The way she gingerly handled the treasured items, which she had protected most of her adult life, made warmth swell in my heart for her. I listened studiously and asked “good” questions.
Every collection like this, everywhere in the world, has a library ladder affixed to the shelves in order to access the oldest, most precious books on the top shelf. This one was no different, and when Julia, who wore a blue dress with a red sash around her tiny waist, approached the ladder, I started imagining her on the top rung while I dutifully waited below, glancing upward. She put a hand on the ladder but did not mount it. Instead she moved it aside to read me the titles behind it. Julia then brought me over to the conference table and showed me how I would be filing my reports. I followed her with a light step. For some reason whenever I am around a beautiful woman, I start walking lightly, as if I’m sneaking into a church while the sermon is underway or approaching prey. I can’t seem to stop myself; it just comes naturally.
She was especially fond of the hand-written revisions Shelley had made to his track on atheism. “Look,” she said, pointing to an original phrase that had been expunged. I leaned in and read the scrawl still visible beneath the mark. Julia added, “That kind of statement could have put him in jail.”
“Have we progressed much since then?” I replied.
“You don’t get locked up for speech,” she said.
“I mean just censorship.”
Julia had no idea what sort of censorship I was referring to. How could she? She was in an entirely different world than I was. I was thrust into my world in 2008 when Horatio paid me a visit and told me that my new stepfather was guilty of taking part in the cover up of my father’s murder. That sounds outlandish, I know. That’s why I don’t talk about it much. With such self-censorship government censorship is hardly needed.
I didn’t blame Julia, or anyone really, for not being able to understand. It was just the way things were. As a historian trained on handwritten letters and personal journals, I knew that, in the midst of great events, many perfectly intelligent people have no idea what’s going on.
“Oh,” exclaimed Julia, remembering a special book that needed to be scanned before any other. She nimbly ascended the ladder, two, three, four, five—will there be a sixth? Yes! and a seventh! I had followed her and was now in position below as she described the nature of this book she was after. Eight! Glancing up I saw the smooth skin of her thighs under her skirt and confirmed my guess that her underwear would match her sash. It turned out the book was slightly to the left of where she’d thought it would be, and, as she leaned that direction, I watched as her muscular body tensed and she extended her right leg out for balance. I stepped back as she began to climb down and offered my hand as she neared the last steps.
“Thanks,” she said innocently, cheerfully, rushing to the table where she first spread out a felt pad and then laid the book upon it. I tried to focus on what she was saying about the book, but I found my mind was wandering a bit, imagining myself climbing up the ladder after and getting one rung below her.
Yes, I thought that. Yes, I confess I did.
Hired while still grad school, Julia had worked for two decades preserving her specimens in exactly the same condition as old man Casaubon had left them. Indeed the paneling, shelves, tables and chairs of his personal library had been disassembled, brought to Fifth Avenue, and reassembled into the room where we worked now. It was like being in a time capsule.
As I scanned, I wondered what would happen to precious items now? What would be the point of recreating the scene of Casaubon’s study if no one visited the library any longer? The books could all be deposited in a vault. The curators could all be let go. The library could be turned into a digital cafe and a corporate networking space.
On about my tenth or twelfth day on the job, I was drinking my morning coffee, sitting at an outdoor table in front of the library. Julia and several other curators were sitting at a table at about three o’clock from me. It was the first time I saw them without their masks. Typically they wore them even on their walk from the subway to the library and wore them all day inside the library, even though most of them worked alone with their collections. Now the four of them were sitting maskless at a tiny wrought iron table, shoulder to shoulder talking, sipping their to-go coffee. I wondered how they justified it, the arbitrary following and not following of arbitrary rules. New Yorkers were not even inclined to wait for the light to cross or to stand behind the yellow line as the subway train rolled in. Why did they obey this rule?
This is what happens when a public health emergency is declared and the government, whose task is to make and enforce laws after all, not provide treatments, is put in charge. They deal with a virus as they would any security crisis. Surround it and kill it. Every measure was part of a containment strategy: lockdown, barrier, closure, restriction. There was no talk among them of the virus itself worked, how the body dealt with it. They didn’t talk of treatments. They only thing they had come up with by way of treatment was the ventilator, the 2020 version of the iron lung.
One of them had a phone screen tuned to CNN, which was going on about the spray-tanned President. I noticed my co-workers were strangely animated by the program. Even m mild-mannered Julia, whose back was to me such I couldn’t see her unveiled face, let out some expletives that rather shocked me. They booed. They groaned. They shouted, “Did you hear that? Did you hear that? I swear that man is an embarrassment to this country.” They hated that “orange fucker,” so much they were becoming orange with rage. My mother always warned, You become what you hate.
This Two-Minutes Hate appeared to be a morning ritual for the curators, Julia, Joslyn (Leary and Kerouac), blonde bearded Leonard (Genealogy, who had introduced himself as the library’s mascot), and Karen (fundraising). Their hate was clearly an addiction; they couldn’t keep themselves from watching the demagogue destroy democracy and undermine decency even if it spoiled their mood for the damn whole day. When CNN showed a clip of the recently nominated white-haired, white-faced savior, the curators proudly beamed. From his basement, fresh with new hairplugs, chin-lift, and an anesthesia-induced far-away look in his eyes, the candidate was marshaling his “stay home, stay safe” campaign on Zoom. He “made sense.” He was “so Presidential.” They sighed with relief. It was almost over, they said. Almost over.
But their contorted expressions immediately resumed when the déclassé racist was shown again, this time holding a super-spreader event for his old, armed, overweight, and undereducated followers. As the curators pushed away from their table, donning their masks to get to work, they vowed again that were going to vote even harder this year because the future of the library and the world depended on it.
My colleagues passed by without seeming to notice me still sipping my coffee. I let them get ahead of me because, feeling a wave of new kid awkwardness, I didn’t want to wait in the security check point area with them.
A few minutes later, when I took the wide library steps two at a time, I remembered, again, the first time Gertrude had taken Ophelia and me to the library when I was ten or so, and we had run up the steps like that together. Once inside, I cued myself up to go through the metal detectors and to let Charlie, the guard, glance into my backpack to make sure I still wasn’t bringing in explosives. The first morning, he had checked my name against a list and said, “medical exemption” at my unmasked face. I nodded. With professional decorum, he gestured for me to pass through. Not all security guards were Soviet-style psychopaths.
I made my way through the lobby and down a short marble staircase to a wide door labeled “Casaubon Collection.” When I put my hand on the heavy bronze knob, I felt its workings tumble and I opened the massively heavy door that swung smoothly on its hinges like an engineering marvel. Julia was at her desk looking at the door with arms folded. I came in and closed the door behind me. “So where’s your mask, Winston?” she asked boldly. It was out of the blue, as she had been working with me for a while without bringing it up. I had assumed the library was following HIPPA guidance for medial privacy.
I felt my face flush but looked steadily at her as I took off my bag and draped it over a chair. “I don’t need a mask. I already had Covid.”
“You don’t know if you can get it again or not,” she said. Then, to my amazement, she took off her mask revealing lips darkened with deep red lipstick. I felt my temperature spike a notch. It was as if she were performing a striptease. Mouths had become obscene, to be hidden from public.
I stammered out, “I didn’t think women wore lipstick under masks.”
Julia showed her teeth with a big smile, friendly or sarcastic, I couldn’t tell. “So,” she said flatly, “What’s wrong with the connection?”
Mortified that she had changed the subject, I glanced around helplessly. My mind raced to try to understand what she meant by “connection.” Oh, right. The day before the outlet hadn’t worked. “I guess I blew a fuse,” I said weakly. “The outlets under the table don’t have power anymore.”
“I’ll put in a work order,” she said, adding “asap,” with a ghost of a smile.
“Thank you. I’ll just plug in elsewhere, for now.”
“Okay,” she agreed. “The one under my desk works.”
I was in utter agony. Every ordinary word we were saying seemed to imply another meaning. She’s a literary person, of course she heard the double-voiced words. Was she torturing me? I had to get control of myself. Be professional, I cautioned myself. You’re not thirteen. You can act like a normal human around a woman wearing lipstick. I knelt down by my table and unplugged my scanner unit from the bad outlet and then I handed her the limp cord. “Can you plug it in for me?”
“Sure,” she said, kindly. She could probably see the beads of sweat on my forehead. She had found me out. I was sure of it.
I started in on the pile of manuscripts that I was scanning for that day. I put on my gloves and used the tongs. The room was quiet but for Julia’s rapid-fire typing and the occasional swoosh of my machine. I got an annoying tickle in the back of my throat that kept making me try to clear it, as if I were trying to get her attention. I kept scanning and didn’t look at her. Upon picking up a letter from Wollstonecraft to her daughter, I saw an old pink NYPL book request slip fall out of the folded leaves. On the slip, written in pencil, were the words, “I love you.” It was Julia’s hand. I’m a handwriting expert.
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