Monday, July 05, 2004

I feel compelled to remark on a quaint circumstance in which I found myself the other day. I was gathering sources for the article I have been editing for the past several months (more on the article itself hereafter), and went into the periodical stacks on the first floor of the Graduate Library here at Michigan, looking for a back issue of, curiously, Vanity Fair. The three floors which constitute the so-called first floor of the Grad stacks are like many repostories of very old books, only much more so. They have no windows, and their unnecessarily low ceilings are perpetually lit by bare yellow bulbs, whose illumination, whatever the time of day or night, is neither dim nor bright, and which cast their bilious academic light without glare or shadow. In this light the bare white walls take on a cheesy color. I can't quite tell when this particular section of the library was constructed, but the cast-iron and brass railings on the abrupt little staircases going from level to level, as well as the deeply worn cement steps suggest a date around the turn of the last century. The smell in there is of acid eating away at paper--paper likely being pressed into a longevity not intended by the publishers who used it: For the first floor is, as I've mentioned, where the library keeps periodicals.

To get to anything on the first floor, one has to find it in a long series of rooms that all look the same. The library directory will only provide a general direction (North, East or West) in which to look--the rest you must deduce from the curious methodology by which they have arranged the widely disparate call numbers of periodicals. I've never met another person down there, and have often found the color-coded lines they paint on the bare cement floors useful in finding my way back out.

On this occasion, I found my way deep into the stacks, and found the periodical my author had cited. It was bound uniformly, three issues to the volume, in blue institutional bindings with brief information embossed on the spine. When I opened my volume, however, there issued forth a pungent aroma of two-year-old perfume and cologne samples and the smell of glossy print that has lain untouched on a shelf. There unfolded in my hands, amidst the century-old classics reviews and mechanics' journals a sheaf of testaments to the ephemeral: gaudy full-page advertisments for toxic-looking liqueurs and absurd, trendy fashions already on the wane; lurid articles on outdated points of celebrity gossip and inconsequential political issues that have since burned off like morning fog; and pointless discussions of the fads then occupying that disgusting idle class of the arbitrarily decadent and wealthy, who constitute the scrofulous underbelly of our otherwise brilliantly efficient capitalism.

I cannot say why I felt the contradiction in the situation so keenly, but it seemed utterly wrong to me that these sweet-smelling, debauchery-covered pages should be filed in the bowels of a learned institution, where living souls seldom stir. For one thing, the magazine is damned hard in which to research, since its pagination is made extremely irregular by reams of advertisments. It seemed a shame both that the work of the myriad scholars whose articles line the musty shelves of the first-floor stacks should be adulterated with a cheesy fashion rag intended to console a fluff-headed bint awaiting a root canal, and that images of fleeting, youthful beauty and pleasure should be shut up in a dank catacomb where even students are driven only by necessity.

As I have come to see it, this contrast is the reason I find myself unable to take seriously those increasingly popular works on history that purport to expose the ordinary lives of the ancients--books on the naughtiness discovered at Pompeii, or on what Henry VIII did after hours, or some such. Mind you, I don't object to evidence of the details of ancient life as a foundation for understanding historical perspective, like the first chapter of Gibbon's Decline and Fall. I can even condone the study and cataloguing of trivia for its own sake. But I find it absurd to adjudge the character of civilizations or the value of their other contributions by their graffiti and pornography, as it would be to look for the character of ours in fashion magazines. Some things were just never meant to be preserved. The academic study of the inherently idiomatic and ephemeral aspects of society both trivializes works of science and art that were meant to be universal, and sterilizes the momentarily pleasurable. Feminist academic objection to the existence of pornography is an example--it says nothing about our culture's universal attitudes toward femeninity that a few (or many, or most) men in the country like to see a statuesque nude or two in their free time. The line between reasoned calculation or overt representation and ephemeral fancies may not always be sharp, but it should not be disregarded. While a man may have to answer to his maker for every aspect of his being, it would seem wise for the scholar and the lawmaker to leave anything not intended for publication or preservation alone.

I suppose all these conclusions lead naturally to a point I have wanted to make for a while, namely that the law cannot and should not be concerned with acieving individual justice on the ground in all circumstances--just as general principles cannot concern themselves with ordering every facet of individual existence, but to discuss it further would require more background than I have the strength to provide at the moment.


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