I've been haunted by the idea of walking though urban streets, looking for a perfect eraser. I will not live forever. Carpe diem.
By Mark Fenton
Published January 30, 2011
I may have said that painting relates as much to life as it does to art or vice versa, but I don't think so. I said that you couldn't make either and...and you had to work in the hole... [in] between.
-- Robert Rauschenberg (quoted from Painters Painting by Emil de Antonio, 1973)
In 1984 I purchased a copy of Horses, Patti Smith's 1975 debut album, from a used record store in Edmonton called the Sound Connection. If you added up all the time I spent in the Sound Connection during my adolescence, it would probably come in at over three years, and I should have spent more time there.
I'm sure the store has been made redundant by a generation of kids who never go farther for music than a laptop, and who now wander past the former location under ear-buds, oblivious to the treasures that once were there.
The vinyl itself was in fine shape, but sadly Robert Mapplethorpe's striking cover photo was marred by a ballpoint pen scored deep into the sleeve in what appears to be a capital, cursive letter J followed by a colon which pierces Ms Smith's throat like the traces of a vampire's incisors,
damage which may explain the album being priced down from $5.00 to $2.50.
This isn't an excuse to show off my record collection, but rather a health and safety advisory involving an unfortunate discovery that produced an awkward social situation. Around the time I bought Horses, I also bought Lou Reed's highly acclaimed 1973 album Berlin.
I was showing off my vintage vinyl to guest recently (it was actually my daughter's middle-school teacher, which-I know-makes this all the more icky) and in examining the artefact we determined simultaneously that some unknown substance had stained the cover. On closer inspection we determined that the unknown substance could only be the blood of a previous owner.
I was mortified and appalled. Like a man who discovers an ominous blemish while shaving, and rushes to view medical photos which he prays will prove it benign, I rushed to the computer to view the artwork online. Just as I'd feared, the blood-spatters were in no way part of the original artwork, and given that the album concerns the dark and depraved lifestyles of marginal '70s New Yorkers, complete with dubious romantic liaisons and IV drug use, the fact of the blood becomes still more alarming.
I had always imagined that the protective polymer sleeves within which audio geeks store their treasured LPs were for the sake of protecting the covers. I now know that they serve equally to protect handlers of the material. I have now shelved Berlin in my basement record stacks and stay well away from it (opting now for a clean download from iTunes). I should probably go to an anonymous medi-centre and get myself tested for god knows what.
When my daughter's middle school teacher had left, I made a cup of herbal tea and composed myself somewhat. Cleaning things up was clearly on my mind and it was at this point that I thought of Les Gommes (The Erasers), the 1953 novel by Alain Robbe-Grillet.
I went into a basement closet (the closet is some twenty feet from my record stacks, so from an infection standpoint, I think I'm safe here) and retrieved a wool coat I hadn't worn for several years. I had always longed to affect the drab, incognito look of a French detective from the mid-20th century.
Think Simenon's Maigret. Think Jean-Pierre Melville's Superintendant Mattei. Think - if you absolutely have to - Inspector Clouseau. I was searching for near-invisibility and, dare I say, a certain je ne sais quoi.
I was on a journey identical to Robbe-Grillet's detective Wallas.
If you haven't got around to ordering it from Bryan Prince, the book is an early example of the nouveau roman, a movement characterized by a wilful determination to rest on surfaces rather than explore depths of motive. Yet if you stare long enough into the still surface of Les Gommes, you will discover an Oedipal subtext as opaque as it is overwrought, and the fact of this hip Freudianism (it was the '50s after all) twitching everywhere in the dark undercurrent got critics calling the book groundbreaking and visionary (though today it's more just difficult to find a copy of or even a reference to).
So hard to find is it, that before I could even set out on my real journey, which was to find a means of erasing the pen mark on my copy of Horses, I had to make a preliminary journey to Mills Library, McMaster University to find a copy of Les Gommes, which journey I'll try and contain within the sentence you're reading now, and I'll just say that the journey was noteworthy in that the book was housed within those compressed bookstacks you manipulate electronically
and which have always scared the willies out of me as I fear some student, heedless of my presence, will compress the corridor I'm in, which would in effect cause me to be erased, though not without bursting and bleeding all over potentially rare and valuable books which will then have to be disinfected and cleaned in a manner undamaging to the paper, a process which can only be a fiscal and public health nightmare for Mills Library, and which would make the sanitizing of my copy of Berlin seem small potatoes indeed.
Wallas is on a quest for an assassin - though, this being a French novel, we eventually learn (eleventh hour spoiler warning) that Wallas is the assassin and that the victim is his father (a comparatively blatant Oedipal reference).
The section of the book that interests me is a diversion which has very little to do with solving the mystery, but which involves Wallas going into a stationery store and requesting a particular kind of eraser.
Already the saleswoman is looking at him with a professionally friendly expression of interrogation. "Can I help you?"
"I'd like an eraser," Wallas says.
"Yes. What kind of eraser?"
That's the whole point, and Wallas once again begins describing what he is looking for: a soft, crumbly gum eraser that friction does not twist but reduces to dust; an eraser that cuts easily and whose cut surface is shiny and smooth, like mother of pearl.
We later learn that the eraser for which he's been trying to find an integral match is motivated by Wallas having earlier seen an eraser that had been largely "erased" at both ends so that only the letters "...di..." could be read in the middle. Clever readers in 1953 had no trouble seeing that these letters would be central to the word "oedipe", though I confess to have missed that and confess not to care.
Since reading it though, I've been haunted by the idea of walking though urban streets, looking for a perfect eraser. I will not live forever. Carpe diem. I softened my gaze and went forth into the crisp winter day.
thankful to have quit my day job so that I can do this stuff.
As though a magnet had drawn me there, I was soon standing in Jackson Square before the entrance to Grand & Toy,
which in its position in central Hamilton surrounded by the 19th Century neighbourhoods, is a striking parallel to the stationary store described in Les Gommes.
...[Wallas] discovers a shop whose ultra-modern exterior and elaborate advertising indicate a recent opening. Its elegance and great size are surprising, moreover, in this small, rather isolated street which is located, nevertheless, not far from the main boulevards. The shop front-plastic and aluminum-is brand new...
You would be amazed, though, at how hard it was to find anything as old-school as an eraser in this store. Whiteout is the preferred mode of corrector these days, which interestingly doesn't "erase" anything, but just adds another layer of meaning and in so doing, "eclipses" the meaning beneath it. (This subject is compelling, in fact so compelling and worthy of detailed exploration that even as I write this I'm actively choosing to leave its exploration to another essay.)
Frustrated, I left and wound my way through Jackson Square, blending effortlessly into the crowded food court. I paused by the combination Taco Bell and KFC
a location I truly wish Detective Wallas could have seen, given his flair for appreciating the ubiquitousness of postmodern franchises.
I contemplated the Dollarama before going in. If you feel you've been inexplicably seduced into the accelerated grind of middle-class employment in an industrialized democracy and want to feel for few moments that you haven't been, I can't recommend a better quotidian rupture than to enter a retail line-up at Dollarama at 14:30 on a weekday. You won't get past that cash register unchanged.
I took a deep breath and went in. To my profound joy, there was a six foot eraser stand in Dollarama. (With this kind of competition
you begin to wonder what keeps Grand & Toy in business.)
I was tempted by the eraser that attached to a belt clip, which I liked conceptually as being something that I could keep on my person, like a blackberry or a camera phone. One never knows, in walking to and fro in the world, when one will come upon something offensive or malign enough to have to erase.
But I didn't think I could style it with the look I was sporting today. So instead I grabbed a boxed set of four erasers and blended into the line.
I had brought 100 pennies with me (how perfect for a dollar store is that?) but the look from the cashier suggested that she didn't want to count it out with the 15 people behind me, so I still had them when I went out.
I returned home with my erasers,
which, unpacked, give the impression that Claes Oldenburg
has departed Brobdingnag
But despite each eraser appearing unique, they all operated much the same way, and were too woefully soft for my purposes. Detective Wallas had not found what he was searching for on his first attempt, and neither had I.
So I rushed out again
this time to Curry's Artists' Materials,
from which I purchased a much more aggressive eraser, and there was no line-up at the cash register.
My purchase earned the quip, "I'm guessing you don't need a bag for that," and I could probably have had some fun with this comment, like for instance spilling my 100 pennies clumsily onto the counter so that they bounced and rolled everywhere and then saying, with a terrible French accent (which I won't try and transcribe), something to the effect that I'm so well organized I never lose track of things.
But I withheld a near irresistible urge to reference Inspector Clouseau and simply affirmed, in my generic Canadian English, that no, I did not need a bag, thank you very much. A good detective, after all, does not succumb to the vanity of having the last laugh. (I still have the pennies.)
On my walk home I thought of the Robert Rauschenberg's famous project of erasing a Willem de Kooning work on paper. In Emil de Antonio's documentary of the New York Art scene in the early '70s, Rauschenberg describes the concept so much better than I could that I will quote him in full.
I did drawings myself and erased them but that seemed like 50/50. And so then I knew that I had pull back farther and... like... if it was going to be an all eraser drawing it had to be art in the beginning. And I went to Bill [de Kooning] and...and told him about it, and locked the door, and [he] started with a portfolio of, of drawings and then [he said] "no not those" and then-then went to another portfolio and he said "these are drawings I would miss." He pulled out one. He put that back. And then he said, "No I'm gonna give you one [that's] really hard to erase. And he picked out another. And he was right. And I spent, I think, nearly three weeks with no fewer than 15 different kinds of erasers [sic]. And that-that made it real. I mean that wasn't... I mean I wasn't just making a few marks and rubbing them out myself.
I wished I could put Mr. Rauschenberg, 1953 in a time machine and bring him to Dollarama, 2011 and take him to the eraser aisle and watch his eyes go wide like a kid in a candy store.
Back in my "studio" I sat before the restoration project with my new eraser
and saw immediately that like Detective Wallas's ideal gomme it could be inverted and erased to contain only the letters
which suggested to me that the eraser Wallas found was not necessarily oedipe, but rather eclipse. (That this is less a metaphor for erasing than a metaphor for "covering up" again opens up a territory too vast for this essay.)
I went to work. I attacked Ms Smith's throat and removed the ink in seconds. Unfortunately, and to my horror, I had torn through every layer of skin such that had she been human and not an image, she'd have haemorrhaged worse than whomever had haemorrhaged on my copy of Berlin and would have died in a pool of her own gore.
Even worse (for me) was that while I had done away with the ink, the eraser had done nothing to eclipse the scoring of the pen and the image still maintained the outline of a cursive J.
The art work it now reminded me of was Alberto Giacometti's 1932 landmark of modern sculpture, Femme égorgée [Woman with her Throat Cut],
not just thematically, but due equally to how the lines of Giacometti's sculpture emulate the contours of a penmark which I had now only accentuated.
Early each morning I take the family dog for a walk. These days the dark is just beginning to wane and the traces of sunrise feel as likely to re-extinguish themselves as they do to burst forth into the few hours of winter light. In such an environment I contemplated the etymology of erase.
c.1600, from L. erasus, pp. of eradere "scrape out, scrape off, shave," from ex- "out" (see ex-) + radere "to scrape" (see raze).
It is, one supposes, the job of literature to put marks on the page such that something is then put into the mind of the reader. This thing may be material or abstract, but it's generally put there so that another thing can be added, and then another thing, until the reader, just by looking at marks on a page, has a mental picture she didn't have before.
But what of passages that scrape their things off the page as rapidly as they place them on?
I thought of this thing by Kafka:
Some say the word Odradek is of Slavonic origin, and try to account for it on that basis. Others again believe it to be of German origin, only influenced by Slavonic. The uncertainty of both interpretations allows one to assume with justice that neither is accurate, especially as neither of them provides an intelligent meaning of the word.
In other words the two schools of thought are like men in a 19th Century Russian novel who meet in a clearing, receive pistols, take 20 paces, turn and fire simultaneously, each extinguishing the other.
And the wintry woods indeed summoned up a Northern setting for a duel at dawn.
The dog and I walked eastward from Kay Drage up the slope towards Breadalbane Street. I thought of a terse sentence from Samuel Beckett's Molloy, which for sheer moronic brutality wins the self-erasure award.
A little dog followed him, a pomeranian I think it was, but I don't think so.
It was at just this moment that I came level with Tom Street Park and saw a woman walking two pomeranians, as though my thinking of the sentence had put them there. I was conflicted. I really wanted a picture of them to illustrate my thought, but the family dog goes berserk at the sight of other animals, and has even bitten strangers (ask me in another essay).
So I'm not eager to take risks with the dog, hence confining these walks to places no one is. Approaching the person with the dogs would get me the picture, but would most likely leave person and/or dogs scarred either physically or emotionally. I opted for safety, and by the time I approached the place where the person with the dogs had been, this is all there was.
"Scraped out of," is fascinating as an etymology for "erase." The first time I got into big trouble as a child in Regina was when I vandalized the three-floor walk-up our family lived in. And it involved "scraping out of."
I was the only exception to the building's "no children" policy. I guess the concern was liability if a child fell off of the first or second floor balcony and died (to say nothing of the embarrassment of such an obituary in the province in which, as the saying goes, "no man can leap to his death").
I suspect there was also a feeling that children would do damage (which as you'll see proved to be the case, if only tautologically). But an exception was made with my family, I guess because the apartment was in the basement and there was only one of me so the caretaker could keep tabs on my mischief.
Nevertheless, the building had a sign reading NO CHILDREN stencilled in black paint on the entrance window. And so, at the age of four, my first act of civil disobedience was to scrape away all the black paint with the edge of a coin. (Thinking back to my recent dilemma around approaching the pomeranians with the family dog in tow it's encouraging, don't you think, that I have, in the last four decades, made some small moral progress against my impulses).
Here's our old building on Google Street View
I had forgotten the name of the building GLENDALE LODGE. Note that the "G:" and the "L" have been scraped away making it LENDALE ODGE,
probably by destructive children who have for decades carried on the tradition I started when the building was new. (I'm partially responsible for the vandalism of Regina real estate.)
Obviously the sign had been put there for me to act on. I was in effect erasing the erasing of myself, which was logically nonsensical. Four-year-olds have little sense of the hard realities of economics, and see the world as a magical place that regenerates itself endlessly.
I stayed mostly indoors, and there was little to do when I came out (being the only child within miles, at least from a four-year-old child's conception of distance). So to amuse myself I contrived an infinite loop within which I would come out and scrape off the sign, and then retreat back into my cell. I imagined the sign would be repainted (perhaps even as I was retreating back into my cell). Then I would come out, scrape off the sign, and retreat back into my cell.
The sign would be repainted (perhaps even as I was disappearing...) ad infinitum. Like the Ultimate Machine (usually attributed to Claude Shannon) in which a box has an outside switch and when a live human hits the switch,
a mechanical hand emerges from the box,
switches the machine off, and falls back
into the box; a live human hits the switch again,
a hand emerges from the box again,
switches the machine off, and falls back again
into the box, ad infinitum.
So to enact a similar metaphysical ballet I scraped away at NO CHILDREN in an ecstasy of destruction, black dust raining everywhere around me until nothing remained of the sign but a small mound of detritus at the base of the door. And even if the sign wasn't immediately reproduced, what difference would it make? I lived in the apartment, and I was a child.
Therefore the sign was meaningless. And since it was meaningless no one would even remark on the sign's not being there. I stood back to admire the now pristine glass. (I did and still do think the appearance of the building was much improved.) I had approached the action from every angle and was certain my logic was airtight.
It wasn't. The sign did not regenerate itself. They adults were shocked and disappointed in me and they punished me. It was my first experience with the gulf between the precision of signs and the fuzziness of human systems they describe.
And ever since I've been working in the hole in between.
ERASED de KOONING DRAWING, ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG 1953
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