Hoarder Line: Some Notes on the Difference between Hoarding and Collecting

Early in 2023, I participated in a workshop at Aberystwyth University exploring collectibles and the collection of ephemera.  I was the only participant, among academics and museum staff, to talk about my private collection of ephemera.  So as to give that fruit fly of a presentation an afterlife, I have gathered my notes for this entry in my journal, which, after all, was created for the purpose of ‘keeping up with the out-of-date.’  

The presentation was titled “Making It Matter: Ephemerabilia, Queer Identity, and the Imperative of Being Out of Touch.”

I know, titles are like jokes.  If you have to explain them, they don’t work.  But, here goes:

“Ephemerabilia,” meaning, the love of the fugitive, the fragile, and perhaps even the futile.  All of the above – which may apply to any of our lives and bodies.  All of the above – but not ‘trivial.’  Nothing is trivial in itself.  Just like nothing is memorable in itself.  Someone has to make it matter.

For that reason, the word “minor” in Maurice Rickards’ definition of ephemera is problematic, as it devalues what it defines.  To quote myself: “Trivia is knowledge we refuse the potential to matter,” whereas “Memorabilia is matter we grant the capacity to mean differently.”

The need to make something matter and mean something, something else, no matter what, is, to me, intimately bound up with queer identity, with my sense of being, thinking, feeling, and loving differently.

And that is where, to me, the compulsion of being out of touch comes in: being drawn to what has been relegated to the margins, to matter that has been disregarded and discarded as presumably nonessential or unrepresentative.

I could have put the last two words in parenthesis; because sharing my passion for the untouchable – or the “not touched much lately” – means coming out with what drives me.  Making something neglected and presumably immaterial matter and mean something anew is an act of reification.

It means saying I matter.  But the question I keep asking myself, in relation to my collection habits, is “What’s the matter with me?”

Let’s say I say “I am a collector.”  Which question should I expect to follow? Is it “What are you collecting?” How about: “Why are you collecting?” “Why do you collect what you collect?”

What I collect is stated – and illustrated – on my website.  I collect ephemera related to products of what once was popular entertainment – early-to-mid twentieth-century, mainly US American, film, theatre and radio – that are lesser-known now.  I call it “unpopular culture.”

My collection is all fairly methodically put into actual and virtual drawers. Unlike in this scenario.  

The image on the left shows my ex’s apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  I once lived there, for about fifteen years, and, for over 33 years now I have stayed at that place whenever I am in the city.

Due to the pandemic, I hadn’t been back in three years.  In the fall of 2022, my ex had a heart attack just days before I was set to arrive there.  I looked after the apartment while visiting him at the hospital.  Anyway, I was shocked when I saw the place in such disarray.  My ex has always been a hoarder.  But the place had become almost unnavigable in the intervening years.

Obviously, hoarding is not collecting.  But is it so obvious? Is the distinction perhaps too obvious?  Sure, hoarding is chaotic.  It is indiscriminate, whereas collecting is orderly and discerning.  Collections are curated. whereas the compulsion of the hoarder may strike us as an infliction, an illness that may or may not be curable.

Curating is derived from the Latin word “curare,” meaning to care.  Does it follow that the hoarder is careless? While staying in my ex’s apartment, I took it upon myself to discard of some items I deemed trash.

Given that chaos, I thought my ex would never notice.  When my ex returned to the apartment after three months of intensive care, hospital care and aftercare, he emailed me and inquired about some of the objects I had discarded.

And he was so incensed about my attempt at tidying that he pretty much ended our 33-year-old friendship.

Seriously, to give up a friendship over a pile of cheap Chinese take-away containers, most of them without matching lids? That struck me as unreasonable, disproportionate.

But the fact that my ex remembered where what is in that chaos made me rethink the relationship between hoarding and collecting.

And it made me question whether collecting is not like hoarding in its illogical, perhaps even pathological clinging to matter that may not matter to most.  Something that takes up so much time and space, it can threaten to diminish rather than enrich our experience of life.

Possessions can take possession of us.  This is not vanity.  It is not conspicuous consumption.  For gay men born into decades of intolerance and legal discrimination, it may be a stab at making our existence more concrete and at leaving a trace or trail of it behind.  I should have known better than to mess with the mess that I found.

I have had occasion – or made it one – to examine the collection of the queer Anglo-Welsh Victorian dilettante George Powell in an exhibition I staged with my curating students a few years ago.  Powell bequeathed his collection to our museum.  But you might say he was a poor curator of his collection.  He did not collect methodically.  And some of the objects in his collections are fakes or copies of dubious provenance.

Powell had no offspring, even though he married toward the end of his short life.  Stating his intention to leave his collection to our museum, he referred to it as all he possessed of bigotry and virtue, meaning, bijouterie and vertu – trinket and treasure.

Powell left the lot to what is now Aberystwyth University.  In his book collection, for instance, was a popular volume called Book of Wonderful Characters, which contains a short account of the life of Chevalier D’Eon, who lived as a crossdresser for half a century and to whom we owe the term “eonism.”

I sensed that Powell created through that bequest a diary of sorts – an invitation, by way of visual and material clues among the objects he once possessed, to go in search of him.

The “it” in “making it matter” refers less to the collection than it does to the collector. Powell did not curate his collection to take care that what might reflect poorly on his character or cause suspicion as to his tastes.  To filter anything out would mean to erase what was at the core of his being, which is why Powell initially insisted that a museum be built to house it and that the collection be kept in one place, Aberystwyth, in its entirety.

He did not want to disappear behind his collection but reappear through it.  He wanted to be become readable, to be understood.  The Powell case made me more aware of the relationship between the private act of collecting and the public act of sharing a collection, of remaining visible through one’s collection.

Powell’s desire to remain visible, become readable and be understood becomes clearer to me in the contemporary periodicals he bequeathed to our University.  Here, he did not give us the lot – the magazines, cover to cover – but he cut out which articles he wanted to preserve and bound them in leather.  There is no telling whether he read the articles.  But it is clear that he thought they mattered and should matter to others.  And they are quite eclectic, ranging from articles on animal cruelty to drunkenness and insanity.

Articles on ‘Consanguinity in Marriage’ and ‘Marriages between First Cousins in England and Their Effects,’ which were no doubt of particular interest to him because his grandmothers were sisters and his parents first cousins.

Powell appeared to have been drawing attention to his struggle to figure out who he was and why he was the way he was.

Trying to understand what motivated Powell as a collector, I made a public display in the galleries of the School of Art Museum at Aberystywyth Univeristy of my own collection of cinema, theatre and radio-related ephemera.  In my gallery texts, I asked:

‘Do we collect things simply to indulge our passion for them? If so, why make a display of that passion? Showcasing seems calculated to raise certain objects to the status of ‘collectibles’ so as to advance the collector as connoisseur.  And yet, might not the urge to exhibit our personal belongings be rather more elemental?’

What are ‘collectibles’? What is collectible? Take, for instance, two different but related types of objects in my collection. Cigarette cards of once well-known but now mostly forgotten performers, in this case radio stars.  As well as movie posters and lobby cards of films of roughly that same period.

Both feature performers from the world of popular – or now less popular – entertainment.  Both are finite.  Lobby cards were generally produced in sets of eight.  Cigarette cards in sets of up to fifty.

The main difference is that cigarette cards were designed to be collected.  They were meant to be habit-forming, to encourage addiction.

Lobby cards on the other hand were not designed as collectibles.  In fact, as the fine print states, collecting them was prohibited by the studios whose property they remained.

By now, the industry that cigarette cards once served has become detached from them.  They no longer advertise and encourage addictive products, which makes them candidates for my belated affection, and which makes it possible for me to make them matter differently.

There are other intimate reasons why I mostly collect the likenesses of one particular actress: Claudette Colbert.

I became intrigued by the French-born US American actress watching a movie on television with my grandmother when I was 8 or 9.  I didn’t start collecting until decades later.  Nor did I know then that Colbert was rumoured to be queer.

My collection is also a catalogue of the love: more than 90% of my collection has been gifted to me by gay men, and almost all of which by my husband.  Original film posters are now almost out of my league as a collector.

I do not collect objects because of their monetary value, of which, due to the fact that the items were given to me, I often have no knowledge.  I have always been attracted to what is of little value to others.

A queer friend told me once that, as a child, he used to pick the crayon no other kid would pick up – the least popular colour.  Embracing neglected objects to me is related to the feeling of having been unwanted and misunderstood as a child.

Exhibiting my collection, I realized just how intimate collecting is.  I was very self-conscious about opening my drawers to display those objects – paper dolls, mass-produced pictures of performers few people today still relate to.  When I tried to exhibit the cigarette cards, I also realized they were too small to be impactful or readable for display.

So I created a slideshow of them.  There are objects in my collection that matter more once they are dematerialized.  I scan many books and scripts so that I need no longer handle the physical artifact.  It preserves the object.  But it also makes the object less meaningful if what matters is the visual or written information it conveys.  Not that I dispose of ephemera in my collection once I have scanned them.

The most ephemeral items in my collection are literally untouchable.  They are digitized sound recordings.  The cigarette cards of radio performers are, like scripts and contemporary books on radio, not the real thing.  They are a means to materialise the immaterial culture they commemorate: the world of sound broadcasting.

My (Im)memorabilia exhibition contained a listening station and featured a soundtrack of clips on a loop.  They are from my collection of audio recordings, now widely available online.  The files contain recordings of radio broadcasts from the 1930s to 1950s, most of them plays, almost all of which were part of episodes of series or chapters of serials.

The vast majority of plays were also broadcast only a single time.  Despite the recordings that gradually materialized from the vaults, they were as ephemeral as soundwaves.  That they survive at all is owing to their commercial value.

The recordings are evidence for the sponsor that the programme they funded actually existed and could be inspected – or audited.  As cultural products they were not valued.  They still are not valued much.  They certainly never received the scrutiny or status accorded to motion pictures or television programmes.

I organize the folders alphabetically by each series title.

And each subfolder contains recordings of broadcasts from those series.  Some subfolders contain close to one thousand recordings per series.  Cataloguing these immaterial objects, which I have written about at some length in my study Immaterial Culture and on my blog broadcastellan, involves adding and correcting information about talents involved in a broadcast play; verifying air dates by referencing old newspapers and magazines; checking for sound quality and recording speed; and replacing files with newer, cleaner, more authentic recordings.

It is not possible to listen to all of those recordings in full.  There are now over 30,000 of them.  It is almost impossible to keep track of them.

Unlike my ex, I have forgotten about many of the items in my collection. But like my ex, I would be very upset if only a single item went missing. Most of these recordings are readily available on the internet, copyright being a murky issue.  In my writing, I have argued for their cultural significance, their artistic merit.  But I have not been successful in making a career out of my caring.  I am wary of intellectualising my desire, and I am suspicious of such attempt by academics.

The difference between hoarding and collecting lies in the adding of value.  Hoarding is an act of accumulation.  Collecting is an act of accretion, of value added.

The ‘imperative’ in my title is the imperative of the matter – what drives us, what makes us who we are.  The ‘it’ in “Making it Matter” refers both to the ephemeron and the life of its collector who deems it worth preserving.  That my efforts have been futile only seems to fuel a desire that has been termed “The Queer Art of Failure.”

Retroactive Selfies: The Return to/of the Boy in the Avocado Bathtub

Asphalt Expressionism collage

For my exhibition Asphalt Expressionism (Aberystwyth University School of Art Museum and Galleries, 13 Feb. – 28 Apr. 2023), I once again rummaged through decades-old photo albums in search of pictures of myself as a walker in New York City.  Some of them had been displayed as part of my show Travelling Through: Landscapes/Landmarks/Legacies in 2018-19.

As I browsed those old albums, I was reminded of an unsettling homecoming in 2022, when, on a dark December afternoon, I returned to my mother’s house for the first time in about thirty-four years.  I had lived in that house – one in a row of unassuming bungalows in a small town in the dull flatness of North-Rhine Westphalia – for about fifteen years, during which time, in the process of growing up that many deem concluded all too prematurely, I gathered a great many memories, not many of them great, that made me eager to forget the place.  And although my skin never developed the thickness of an elephant’s hide, I cannot but remember.

You can’t go home again, Thomas Wolfe reminds us; but when we do return to the places we once called home – whether by choice or not – it can hit home hard that whatever home may be is a construct the mind makes even when it is not made up on that point. A lot of what happened or befell us where we come back for a second or umpteenth look is bound to topple from the shelves to which we relegated some of those none-too-precious but relentlessly durable mental keepsakes.

The living room in my parents’ house was never my place, even though it held several attractions: a good stereo system, courtesy of my maternal grandmother, and, after years of resistance from my father, who held that the technology had not been perfected yet, a colour television set.  My room was more of a listening post; apart from drawings I made, the comics I consumed and the magazines I scoured for material to luxuriate in, vivid dreams were produced there, many with the aid of a radio and cassette recorder.

Since then, my Kinderzimmer had been repurposed, although its current state said nothing more distinctly about its present purpose than “spare.”  None of the cheap furnishings had survived, and the change of décor did little to revive, revise or confirm the images that, originating there, I had been carrying in my mind since the late 1980s.

It was the most private place in the house – the shared bathroom – that brought back the identity crises I experienced growing up queer: the shame of developing breasts that waited long for the development of pectoral muscles; the attempts at concealing the unseemly tissue by stretching my t-shirts and tying them around my genitals; the anxieties that caused me to scratch the skin off my ankles that, raw and oozy, were then soaked, doctor’s orders, in a bidet filled with salty water.

Memories tend to come back faster and with greater force when we return to the places where there were made.  That was certainly the case when I stepped into Mutti’s abode (my father having left and since died decades ago).  The interior was like a time capsule.  Not only the furniture was unchanged, but all the bric-a-brac was still in the same spots my mother had set aside for their display and regular dusting.  

The self-exploration that happened in that room also took a creative turn, as, transitioning from adolescence to dreaded adulthood, I took what I now call retroactive selfies: photographs of my body that I initially produced mainly for my eyes only but that I am now, in this post, making public for the first time via the social medium of blogging so as further to blur boundaries the maintenance of which can cause so much sustained and needless suffering.  

Once we do decide to “come out,” we soon realize that we do not come out once only: we must do so over and over again, and each time we come out – and come out looking – differently, like an inadvertent burst of digital photographs that, owing to a finger staying put too long, shows our poses changing and our masks slipping.

Excusing myself from the dinner table during my short visit to my mother’s, I secreted myself in the bathroom, that anti-parlour of abjection.  Not that I needed to go.  What I needed was to go look at myself in the mirror that, in my youth, became a lens of self-exploration.  I needed to return to the spot where I had once stood and posed – donning masks and dappled in spraypainted dots – a young person, once called “the battle of the sexes” by a classmate, learning to live in and with the strangeness of a changing body, an organism that I seemed to be invading and that rejected me as much as I was rejecting it.  

Uneasy, curious and ever self-reflexive, the boy in the avocado bathroom is not gone, though none may recognize him now.  He is a persona still grappling with the challenge of achieving personhood: a retroactive selfie.

Down and Out in NYC: Movements, Pavements and Pandemics

Well, it ain’t over ‘til the proverbial — and stereotypically plus-sized — diva, binary or otherwise, puts down her lozenges to launch a final attack on the lorgnette-clutching, socially-distanced crowds. In as plain a variety of English as I can bring myself to adopt: we haven’t heard the last of COVID-19. Done as we might think we are with the pandemic the US President declared over, the virus continues to catch us unawares and mess with our lives.

It sure is messing with mine right now, in a number of ways. Almost immediately on arrival in New York City two weeks ago, I caught some resilient variant of the bug I had managed to steer clear of for so long. And it caught up with me despite all vaccinations and boosters, having taken advantage of the first opportunity to have my last antiviral top-up just two days before my departure.

Imperative mood

This is my first return visit to my old Manhattan neighborhood in three years … but clearly things did not go as planned or hoped for. What makes matters worse is that I had intended to be of some use to an old friend and former domestic partner, who, just days prior to my arrival, suffered a massive heart attack and has been in intensive care ever since. Here I am, stuck in his apartment, just a 20-minute walk away from the hospital that is now off limits. No doubt, millions of New Yorkers felt like that during lockdown — when everything and everyone close by was suddenly out of reach.

Continue reading “Down and Out in NYC: Movements, Pavements and Pandemics”

“You beat time on my head”: Thoughts on Being Older Than My Father

My father, Gerhard Heuser, before I was born.

“As all the pleasures of intellect arise from the association of ideas,” Richard Payne Knight reasoned in An Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste (1805), “the more the materials of association are multiplied, the more will the sphere of these pleasures be enlarged.”  He argued that, to a

mind richly stored, almost every object of nature or art, that presents itself to the sense either excites fresh trains and combinations of ideas, or vivifies and strengthens those which existed before: so that recollection enhances enjoyment, and enjoyment brightens recollection.

While I am not convinced that the “association of ideas” always brings “pleasures” or ‘brightens recollection” – experiences that are not strictly a matter of “intellect” to begin with – I am so prone to raids on the store of memories, in varying states of neglect and disrepair, that any and all matter may turn up and, often unexpectedly, turn into reassembled “materials of association.”

Tracing the proverbial dots that speckle – or perhaps constitute – my mindscape, I invariably connect the tell-tale marks that, like splotches of blood, lead right to the heart of what is the matter with me, and, without any recourse to science, make themselves felt to match my DNA.  I am dotty that way.

Call it egocentrism, call it empathy, such provoked but uncalled-for recall can lead to discoveries decidedly beyond “enjoyment.”  The compulsion to relate – to find associations relevant and revelatory rather than beside whatever the point of anything may be, according to some – keeps driving home that the past, however processed or pasteurized, like spilled milk made longer-lasting to be cried over anew – keeps repeating on us.  Hold our tongue as we may, we can still taste it.  I am tasting it now.

Continue reading ““You beat time on my head”: Thoughts on Being Older Than My Father”

“Thank you for being …”: From Silver to Golden with Betty White

Betty White, Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan as I met them at a DVD signing at Barnes & Noble in downtown Manhattan in November 2005

What a fitting end this was to a mostly “stinky” 2021. Just as I was plonking myself down to subject my unsuspecting husband to a viewing of Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living (1933), news reached me of Betty White’s death. The year could hardly have expired on a more cheerless note, with the last of the Golden Girls not living to see her hundredth birthday in January 2022. Like so many other celebrations these days, that centenary now has to be called off as well. As the clock ticked relentlessly toward midnight, I shed a tear, remembered the laughter and called to mind the many years I spent in the company of … Rose Nylund.

I know that White, who started out on radio, played many roles on screens small and big. I also know better than to confuse an actor interpreting a script with a person inhabiting a character. Nevertheless, it was as Rose on The Golden Girls that White had the most profound influence on my life, especially in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I was trying to adopt a more colloquial American English, to make the vernacular mine and make it work for me to boot.

Now, I’m not one to “blow my own gertögenflögen” – or however you might spell Rose’s pseudo-Scandinavian additions to my vocabulary – but, with the aid of White’s Rose, I managed to find the joy in speaking in at least two tongues, resigned to the likelihood that none quite conveys what I am aiming to say, particularly in the face of that “precise moment when dog do turns white.”

Peroxide blonde like me, White’s Rose was reassuringly naïve, curious and enthusiastic. She was generally good-natured and, trusting in fellow human beings she remained even after the end of her relationship with the man she had assumed to be Miles, was especially kind to animals, among them Mr. Peepers, the cat she reluctantly gave up on the day she met her future housemate Blanche Devereaux; Count Bessie, the piano-playing chicken she dreaded consuming; and Baby, the aged pig she agreed to adopt – or indeed to all the injured animals back on the farm on which she grew up. Rose’s character and the situations in which she found herself reflected White’s commitment to animal activism.

Rose was an outsider, too, an adopted child (with a monk for a father, no less). After the death of her husband, Charlie – of whom the bull on her family farm “would have been jealous” – she moved from Minnesota to Florida, struggling to acclimatize. She felt even more out of place visiting the “Big Potato.” Never having “seen so much of everything” in her “whole life,” she did not know “how people live here.”

Rose was also highly competitive, filled as she was with the “bitter butter memories” of having lost Butter Queen – a disappointment she revisited on the night she was arrested for prostitution – and occasionally exhibited a sarcastic streak, all qualities that I possessed anno 1990 without quite having the language to give them adequate expression in my temporary home of NYC.

Rose, as brought to life by White, never left me; indeed, the Girls helped me when I relocated from Manhattan to Wales, ill equipped as I was in my knowledge of that nation. Only yesterday, in the shower, I was making up another St. Olaf story that Rose might have tried to spring on Blanche, Dorothy and Sophia – a story sure to sound incomprehensible beyond that shower door.

A page from my ENG 101 journal

I am used to talking to myself, unable to make myself understood about my distant past, which is another country not on anyone else’s map. Like Rose, though, I never quite stopped trying.

On 23 March in 1991, during my first semester of college at BMCC in downtown Manhattan, and toward the end of what would be the final season of The Golden Girls, I devoted an entry to the girls in my journal – an assignment for my English 101 class with Ms. Padol – insisting that those “four women [we]re not just knitting sweaters.” After all, there were “episodes on artificial insemination, gay marriage, racial problems, Alzheimers, homeless[ness] and death.” As I pointed out to my audience of one, “the show is liberal but does not come along too preaching or moralising.”

When you keep watching the show you come to know the characters[,] learn a lot about their relationship.  And even though the four leading ladies are slightly off-beat you can get a lot out of the show; you can often relate to some of their various problems.

There is life and sex after 50.  Some youngsters seem to forget that and some old people find it hard to compete or fight for their rights in the fast-paced world of today

As a queer young man growing up at the height of the AIDS crisis in the West, I certainly could relate to Rose and her agony of waiting for the result of an HIV test. I found comfort in the fiction that they had made it past the age of forty and envied the close and safe commune of the Girls.  When I taught an English literature class on friendship back in the late 1990s, I played the theme song that had inspired the theme of my class.  

Now that I am over fifty (Rose was 55 in the first season of the show, even though White was already in her sixties then), I think of The Golden Girls as a cultural product that made it easier for me to transition from silver to gold. And while I did not pick up many medals along the way, I did it all without access to the professional services of Mr. Ingrid of St. Olaf and his moose. Rose never divulged which part of the moose he used. “But,” she declared, “it’ll keep your hair in place in winds up to 130 miles an hour.”

I could always count on Betty White to see me through a storm.

“There [still] ain’t no sense to nothin’”: A Wayward Text Comes Home

“Home at last,” I could almost hear myself sigh as, out of the narrow slit in our front door, I yanked the packet arriving today.  Bearing my name, as few pieces of mail of any consequence or sustenance do nowadays, it contained the volume Audionarratology: Lessons from Radio Drama, to which I had been invited a few years ago to contribute a chapter.  The book was published in July 2021 by Ohio State University, a press renowned for its contribution to the evolving discourse on narratology.  

The titular neologism suggests that an engagement with aural storytelling is proposed as one way of broadening a field that has enriched the interpretation not only of literature but also of visual culture.  Whether such aural storytelling should be subsumed under the rubric ‘radio drama’ is something I debated in my study Immaterial Culture, for which I settled on the term ‘radio play,’ as, I argued, the fictions written for radio production and transmission are hybrids whose potentialities remained underexplored and whose contribution to the arts underappreciated in part due to the alignment of such plays with works for stage and screen.  Nor am I sure that, by adding the prefix, “audionarratology” will be regarded as a subgroup of narratology – which would defeat the purpose of broadening said field.

To the question what “Lessons” may be learned from plays for radio, or from our playing with them, the quotation that serves as title of my essay provides a serviceable response: “There ain’t no sense to nothin.”  The line is uttered by one of the characters in I Love a Mystery, the thriller serial I discuss – and it is expressive of the bewilderment I felt when first I entered the world created in the 1930s and 1940s by the US American playwright-producer Carlton E. Morse.  My cumbersome subtitle is meant to suggest how I responded to the task of making sense not only of the play but also of the field in which I was asked to position it: “Serial Storytelling, Radio-Consciousness and the Gothic of Audition.”

By labelling ‘gothic’ not simply the play but my experience of it, I aim to bring to academic discourse my feeling of unease, a sense of misgivings about explaining away what drew me in to begin with, the lack of vocabulary with which adequately to describe my experience of listening, the anxiety of having to theorise within the uncertain boundaries of a discourse that I sought to broaden instead of delimiting.

Throughout my experience with radio plays of the so-called golden age, I felt that, playing recording or streaming play, I had to audition belatedly for a position of listener but that I could never hear the plays as they were intended to be taken in – serially, via radio – during those days before the supremacy of television, the medium that shaped my childhood.

In the essay, I try to communicate what it feels like not knowing – not knowing the solution to a mystery, not quite knowing my place vis-à-vis the culture in which the play was produced or the research culture in which thriller programs such as I Love a Mystery are subjected to some theory and much neglect.  Instead of analysing a play, I ended up examining myself as a queer, English-as-second-language listener estranged from radio and alien to the everyday of my grandparent’s generation – never mind that my German grandfather fought on the Axis side while the US home front stayed tuned to news from the frontlines as much as it tuned in to thrillers and comedies that were hardly considered worthy of being paraded as the so-called forefront of modernism.  So, a measure of guilt enters into the mix of emotions with which I struggle to approach or sell such cultural products academically.

The resulting chapter is proposed as a muddle, not as a model – although its self-consciousness may be an encouragement to some who are struggling to straddle the line between their searching, uncertain selves and the construct of a scholarly identity.  Its failings and idiosyncrasies are no strategic efforts to fit in by playing the misfit or refitting the scene – they are proposed as candid reflection of my mystification.  

They also bespeak the fact that the essay, unfinished or not fully realised though it may seem, was a quarter century in the making.  It started out by twisting the dial of my stereo receiver and happening on Max Schmid’s ear-opening program The Golden Age of Radio on WBAI, New York, agonising whether to turn my newly discovered hobby into the subject of academic study, enrolling in Richter course “The Rise of the Gothic” at CUNY, and by responding to the essay brief by exploring gothic radio plays and radio adaptations of Gothic literature.

Once I had decided to abandon my Victorian studies in favor of old-time radio, the essay was revised to become a chapter of my PhD study Etherized Victorians.  It was revisited but removed from Immaterial Culture as an outlier – the only longer reading of a play not based on a published script – during the process of negotiating the space allotted by the publisher.  It had a lingering if non-too-visible presence on my online journal broadcastellan as an experiment in interactive blogging, and it now appears in a volume devoted to a subject of which I had no concept when I started out all those years ago.

The draft, too, has gone through a long process of negotiation — of editing, cutting and rewriting – at some point of which the frankness of declaring myself to be among the “outsiders” of the discourse did not make the editors’ cut.

So, home the essay has come; but the home has changed, as has its dweller, a student of literature who transmogrified into an art historian with a sideline of aurality, and who now has to contend with tinnitus and hearing loss when listening out for clues to non-visual mysteries and, ever self-conscious, waits for his cue to account for the latest of his botches, or, worse still, to be met with silence.  Estrangement, uncertainty, and the misery of having to account for the state of being mesmerised by mysteries unsolved – such is the gothic of audition.

“Nance” Encounter: Herman Wouk’s Don’t Stop the Carnival (1965) as a Bad Date

This curated window at the Oxfam Bookstore, Aberystwyth, drew me in.

The themed window of our local Oxfam bookshop here in Aberystwyth was something to behold on that bright July afternoon.  A row of handsome, second-hand but well-preserved copies of once popular fiction beckoned, reminding me of the tag I had chosen for this blog devoted to unpopular culture upon its inception back in 2005: “Keeping up with the out-of-date.”

A novelist friend and avid reader, who had come from London for a visit, treated me to a volume of my choice.  Three of them, in fact, as the £5-for-three deal made it unnecessary to be quite so discriminating.  I passed up on erstwhile bestsellers by A. J. Cronin and Pearl S. Buck, both of whom had vanished from the display a day later, when I returned for another three titles (all six are pictured above).  My first choice, however, had been Herman Wouk’s Don’t Stop the Carnival (1965).

I remember picking up Wouk’s tome Youngblood Hawke (1962), in a German translation, from my parent’s sparse bookshelves.  My grandfather, likewise, was a Wouk reader, even though his chief interest lay in the writer’s Second World War subjects, to which Opa Heinrich, a former POW, could relate.  In my late teens, desultory though my readings were, I enjoyed Wouk’s earlier City Boy (1948) and Marjorie Morningstar (1955).

Volumes I recent additions to my bookshelf

My next encounter with Wouk’s writings dates from my years of graduate studies in New York.  I had decided to ditch Thomas Carlyle as a subject and instead write a PhD study on US radio plays.  Wouk, as I discussed here previously, had started as a radio writer or gagman.  He satirized the industry in Aurora Dawn (1947) and reflected on his experience it in his autobiographical novel Inside, Outside (1985).  From the latter I snatched the phrases “Hawkers of feces? Costermongers of shit?” – a reference to laxative commercials on the air – for the title of one of the chapters of Immaterial Culture to capture the dismissal of commercial radio as a legitimate literary forum by those who had written for broadcasting during the 1930s and 1940s but who gained prominence later as published writers and dramatists.

Long story short, I have a kind of casual relationship with Wouk as a writer, a relationship that at one point turned serious (or academic) due to my interest in radio.  So, when I spotted that copy of Don’t Stop the Carnival, an old book new to me, I felt inclined to get reacquainted.  It turned out to be a bad date.

Don’t Stop the Carnival is a story of middle age.  The action, of which there is plenty, is mainly set on an imaginary island in the Caribbean, anno 1959.  The novel relates the misadventures of a New Yorker – Norman Paperman – who falls in love with what strikes him as a tropical paradise and decides to take over a hotel, having had no prior experience either with the business or with life on a tropical island.  Complications abound, some less comical than others.

Paperman is a Mr. Blandings of sorts, a familiar figure in American fiction.  He’d rather lay an egg elsewhere than suffer his ‘disenchantment with Manhattan’ a day longer:

the climbing prices, the increasing crowds and dirt, the gloomy weather, the slow bad transportation, the growing hoodlumism, the political corruption, the mushrooming of office buildings that were rectilinear atrocities of glass, the hideous jams in the few good restaurants, the collapse of decent service even in the luxury hotels, the extortionist prices of tickets to hit shows and the staleness of those hits, and the unutterably narrow weary repetitiousness of the New York life in general, and above all the life of a minor parasite like a press agent.

Perhaps, as his name suggests, Norman is not to be looked at as man but as a page – scribbled on, rather than blank, over the course of nearly fifty years.  He may feel like turning over a new leaf – but his life is already scripted in ink that is indelible.  Don’t Stop the Carnival sets us up for its conservative moral: stick with what you know, stop kvetching, and don’t even think that the grass could be greener than in Central Park in May.

While it responds to the modernity of its day – to the threat of nuclear war and the growing doubt in the progress narrative of the 1950s – the novel nonetheless shelters in the makeshift of retrospection: it looks back at the end of the Eisenhower years from the vantage point of the violent end of the Kennedy presidency to reflect on the so-called modern liberalism of the early to mid-1960s.  

Was this choice of dating the action meant to suggest the datedness of the views expressed by the characters? What were the attitudes of the author toward race relations, civil rights and liberalism? In other words, what comments on the turmoil of the 1960s did Wouk make – or avoid making – by transporting back the readers of his day and dropping them off on an island that, for all its remoteness is nonetheless US territory, and that is about to be developed and exploited for its exoticism and natural resources?

The titular carnival is both figurative and metaphoric – an extended topsy-turvydom (or chaos) in which black mix and mate with white, queer live along straight folks, and Jews like Wouk’s protagonist Norman Paperman mingle with Catholics, Protestants, agnostics, pagans and atheists.  He encounters bad infrastructure, worse bureaucracy, and political corruption.  This island ain’t that different from Manhattan – which argues getting away from his former life to be futile and pointless.

The Carnival is not only shown to be a dead end but a deadly one.  In the final pages of the novel, two characters are killed in quick succession – one central to the narrative, the other – the decidedly other – being marginal.  The central one is Norman’s island fling, Iris Tramm, whom he knew as a celebrated actress two decades earlier and is surprised or reencounter, washed up but still alluring, as one of the guests in the hotel he decides to buy.  

The island carnival is exposed as a tropical fever that means either death or cure – a cure for an uncommon warmth of non-traditional bonds and realized desires.  Paperman recovers, and his understanding wife takes him “home.”  His lover, meanwhile, must first lose the companionship of her dog, and then, trashing Paperman’s car while trying to reunite with her wounded pet at a veterinarian’s, her life.  Was this the only out Wouk could conceive for a white woman who was the mistress of a black official who dared not to marry her?

It is the treatment of the marginal character of Hassim and his swift, unceremonious and unlamented disposal that lays bare Wouk’s fear of change: the antique dealer Hassim, introduced as a “rotund bald man” with a “bottom swaying like a woman’s,” who openly flirts with young men.  In fact, the island is awash with middle-class homosexuals of all ages.  Even Paperman’s hotel is pre-owned by a gay couple. And although he must have come across some of them in his former job as a Broadway press agent, Paperman is uneasy in their presence when he and Iris, his illicit love, visit an establishment frequented by gays:

Norman found the proprietor amusing, and he was enjoying the songs of his youth. But the Casa Encantada made him uneasy. Men were flirting with each other all around him; some were cuddling like teen-agers in a movie balcony. The boy in the pink shirt, biting his nails and constantly looking around in a scared way, sat at a small table with one of the rich pederasts from Signal Mountain, a pipe-smoking gray-haired man in tailored olive shirt and shorts, with young tan features carved by plastic surgery, and false teeth. Norman was glad when the proprietor finished a run of Noel Coward songs and left the piano, so that he and Iris could politely get out of the place.

Hassim is shot dead by a policeman, despite posing no risk and committing no crimes.  The killing, which occurs in Paperman’s hotel and bar, the Gull Reef, is described in few words and elicits less of a response than the stabbing of a dog a few pages before this incident near the close of the novel.

“As a matter of fact, […] I feel sorry for the poor bugger,” is the response to the death of  Hassim by one character, “munching on his thick-piled hamburger” not long after the killing.

“I’ve known thousands of those guys, and there’s no harm in ninety-nine out of a hundred of them. It’s just a sickness and it’s their own business.  Though gosh knows, when I was a kid working backstage, I sure got some surprises.  Yes ma’am, it was dam near worth my life to bend over and tie my shoelace, I tell you.” He laughed salaciously.  His once green face was burning to an odd bronze color like an American Indian’s, and he looked very relaxed and happy.  “Actually, Henny [who is Paperman’s wife], I almost hate to say this, but I think this thing’s going to prove a break for the Club.  I bet the nances stop coming to Gull Reef after this.”

Such views are unchallenged by the narrator and the main character, who decides to sell his business – to the man expressing those views, no less – and return to New York.  “People thought that this [his death] was a bit hard on Hassim,” the narrator sums, “but that the cop after all had only been doing his duty, and that one queer the less in the world was no grievous loss.”  Case closed. Business open as usual.

Clearly, queers like me were not considered by Wouk to be among his readers.  Targets, yes, but not target audiences.  Even the academic treatment of homosexuality – the suggestion that famous writers of the past, too, might have been homosexuals – is ridiculed in the novel, with one PhD student, the lover of Paperman’s teenage daughter, nearly drowning in the sea.  

Wouk, who died shortly before his 104th birthday in May 2019, lived beyond the middle age of Don’t Stop the Carnival for more than half a century.  I doubt that I shall make him a companion again on whatever is left of my journey.

What Was I Thinking?: English 101, Phil Donahue and the Politics of Identity

I started college in the spring of 1991.  I had been visiting New York City since April the previous year, returning only once to my native Germany to avoid exceeding the six consecutive months I could legally stay in the US on a tourist visa.  The few weeks I spent in the recently reunited Vaterland that October had been difficult to endure, and for years I had nightmares about not getting back to the place I thought of as my elective home, the realities of the recession, the AIDS crisis, Gulf War jingoism and anti-liberal politics notwithstanding. 

The cover of my 1991 journal, with an image collage
borrowed from a copy of Entertainment Weekly

I was determined not to repeat the experience of that involuntary hiatus once the next six-month period would come to an end.  A close friend, who worked at Lehman College in the Bronx, suggested that I become a student and generously offered to pay my tuition for the first year.  We decided that, instead of entering a four-year college such as Lehman, I should first enroll in classes at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), an option that would cut those “foreign” tuition fees in half.

Having gotten by thus far on my better than rudimentary German high school English, I had doubts nonetheless about my fitness for college.  My first English instructor, Ms. Padol, was both exacting and reassuring.  She worked hard to make her students try harder.  Not only did she give us bi-weekly essay assignments, and the chance to revise them, but also made us keep a journal, which she would collect at random during the semester.

“This requirement for my English class comes almost as a relief,” I started my first entry, titled “A journal!” That it was only “almost: a relief was, as I wrote, owing to the fact that, whatever my attitudes toward my birthplace, I felt “so much more comfortable in my native language.” Back then, I still kept my diary in German.  

What I missed more than the ability of putting thoughts into words was the joy of wordplay.  “My English vocabulary does not really allow such extravaganzas,” I explained, “and even though the message comes through – in case there is any – the product itself seems to be dull and boring to read.”  This reflects my thoughts on writing to this day.  To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, I write to entertain myself and strangers.

In the days of the lockdown – which were also a time of heightened introspection – I scanned the old journal to remind myself what I chose to entertain notions of back in 1991.  Many entries now require footnotes, if indeed they are worthy of them: who now recalls the stir caused by Kitty Kelley’s Nancy Reagan biography? Not that I had actually read the book. “Nobody will use this book in a history class,” I declared. Being “a compilation of anecdotes” it had “no value as a biography.” Autobiography, being predicated on the personal, cannot be similarly invalidated, as I would later argue after taking a graduate course in ‘self life writing’ with Nancy K. Miller at Lehman. What I knew even in 1991 was that a journal was not a diary.

Unlike the diary, the journal provided me with a chance to develop a writerly persona.  I was playing the stranger, and what my reader, Ms. Padol, may have perceived to be my outsider perspective on what, in one entry, I called the “American waste of life” was in part my rehearsal of the part I thought my reader had reason to expect from me.  However motivated or contrived, that performance tells me more about myself than any posed photograph could. 

In an entry dated 3 May and titled “O temporaO mores!” I shared my experience watching Donahue, a popular talk show at the time, named after its host.  The broadcast in question was “People Who Change Their Sex to Have Sex with the Same Sex,” the sensationalism of which offering served as an opportunity to air my queer views as well as the closet of a journal that, for all its queerness, opened by lexically straightening my life by declaring my partner to be a “roommate.”

After expressing my initial confusion about the title and my indignation about the “exploitation” of the subject, I considered my complicity as a spectator and confronted the narrow-mindedness of my binary thinking:

Like the audience in the studio I asked myself why anybody would go through such a procedure only to have a lesbian relationship.

But then I realized that this is really a very shallow, stupid and yet typical question that shows how narrow-minded people are.

It also reflects ongoing intolerance in this society.

The woman in question made it clear that there is a difference between sexual identity and sexual preference.  When a man feels that he is really a woman most people think that he consequently must be a homosexual.

I refer to myself in the journal as gay.  What I did not say was how difficult it had been for me to define that identity, that, as a pre-teen boy I had identified as female and that, as a teenager, I had suffered the cruelty of the nickname “battle of the sexes,” in part due to what I know know (but had to look up again just now) as “gynecomastia”: the development of breast tissue I was at such pains to conceal that the advent of swimming classes, locker rooms and summer holidays alike filled me with dread.  I had been a boy who feared being sexually attractive to the same sex by being perceived as being of the opposite sex.

Reading my journal and reading myself writing it thirty years later, I realise how green – and how Marjorie Taylor Green – we can be, whether in our lack of understanding or our surfeit of self-absorption, when it comes to reflecting on the long way we have supposedly come, at what cost and at whose expense.  We have returned to the Identity Politics of the early 1990s, which I did not know by that term back then but which now teach in an art history context; and we are once again coming face to face with the specter of othering and the challenge of responding constructively to difference.  I hope that some of those struggling now have teachers like Ms. Padol who make them keep a journal that encourage them to create a persona that does not hide the self we must constantly negotiate for ourselves.

There is no record online of a Ms. Padol having worked at BMCC.  Then again, there is no record of my adjunct teaching at Lehman College from around 1994 to 2001, or at Hunter College and CUNY Graduate Center thereafter.  The work of adjuncts, and of teachers in general, lives on mostly in the minds and memory of the students they shaped.

I was more surprised at not finding any references online to that particular Donahue broadcast, except for a few mentions in television listings – two, to be exact.  The immediate pre-internet years, that age of transition from analog to digital culture, are a time within living memory to the access of which a minor record such as my English 101 journal can serve as an aide-memoire.  Whatever the evidentiary or argumentative shortcomings of anecdotes, by which I do not mean the Kitty Kelleyian hearsay I dismissed as being “of no value,” historically speaking, they can be antidotes to histories that repeat themselves due to our lack of self-reflexiveness.

Those of us who have been there, and who feel that they are there all over again – in that age in which the literalness of political correctness was pitted against the pettiness of illiberal thinking – can draw on our recollections and our collective sense of déjà vu to turn our frustration at the sight of sameness into opportunities for making some small difference: we are returning so that those who are there for the first time may find ways of moving on. Instead of repeating the question in exasperation, we need answers to “What were we thinking?”

His Name Was Montague

Holding on to Montague

Twelve years ago I introduced Montague on the pages of this journal.  Today, it was time to bid farewell.

Montague, a stout, furry Jack Russell terrier, developed a cancerous growth in his snout and the last few weeks were (mostly) painful for him; he quickly lost his eyesight, his hearing, and his sense of smell, even though, until the very last day, he still ate with relish as much as he could swallow with ease.

I stroked the sedated dog in his basket as the veterinarian administered the lethal injection; his heart was so strong that it required two injections to put an end to his suffering.  It even made me doubt, momentarily, whether he could not have pulled through after all.

I had never experienced dying before; that is saying a lot, considering that, in my youth, I worked in a hospital for twenty months and have been around since then for decades.

Adopted and at first reserved, Montague was the only dog ever to live with me.  Given his past, shadowy though it is to me, he was cautious and not overly attached to anyone in particular; so it would not be right to call him ‘my’ first dog.  He let my husband, me – and friends and relatives – take care of him as he saw fit; and I was glad of it.

He’ll stay in that carpet.

I had to go to work after the veterinarian appointment.  It was a gloomy Saturday, the day that Storm Callum caused the worst flooding in Wales in thirty years. When I walked to the School of Art, where I work, I heard organ music play in a nearby chapel.  I do not recall having heard music coming out of that place before, at least not in my presence, atheist that I am.  It felt like something out of Victorian melodrama; not that I, being late as usual, had time to dwell on the peculiar aptness of the music as a soundtrack for the moment.

On the previous day, my latest exhibition, “Travelling Through,” opened at the School of Art Museum and Galleries at Aberystwyth University.  The wistful, melancholy title has added meaning on this day of loss.

I am prone to sentimentality; but, in this age of meanness,  discord and accelerating indifference, I am glad to be feeling sorrow – though some may sneer that I simply feel sorry for myself – along with the need to let it be known; not in the hope of letting it dissipate but of making it resonate.

Farewell, Montague.  Little though I know, you taught me a lot.

A Night’s Wait: Hemingway, the Apocalypse and I

“It’s not the end of the world.”  How often do we utter those words, whether to calm ourselves or to dismiss the concerns of others.  Well, I never found anything calming about that expression.  It is the belittling by hyperbole that irks me.  We tend to judge the gravity of a situation by the magnitude of its physical manifestations rather than the depth of feelings it produces in the experiencer.  I, for one, have experienced the end of the world in early childhood; yet there is no evidence of an event having taken place, no trace of its existence save for the lachrymal salt on a crumpled pillow that, I suppose, was disposed of decades ago.  No surface trace, that is.

How am I looking? Is this an expression of trust, apprehension, or a questioning of portraiture as truth?

One evening, in a working-class flat in the grim sterility of the German industrial town I was expected to call home, I overheard my parents make mention of the apocalypse.  Someone had predicted that the world was going to end, and the date was set for the night to come. It was one of those doomsday prophecies that adults shrug off or subscribe to, depending on their intellect, faith and psychological make-up.  As a child, I had no recourse to experience.  I had no knowledge of having survived any number of doomsdays pronounced previously.  Nor did I yet doubt that adults knew all and spoke true.  I only had that night to go into, with a sense that it would be my last.

I was put to bed, and it felt as if I had been abandoned, cast out to face the unfathomable by myself.  I was going to be no more.  Everything I knew was to turn into unknowable nothingness.  No one seemed troubled to prepare me for this chaos, the void that I already felt lying alone in the dark.  I remember well the agony of that night, an angst that I now might term existential.

I have no recollection of the morning after.  What followed, though, were years of nightmares involving the atom bomb, cold-war sweat inducing anxieties about nuclear fallout and the nihilism of the No Future generation, mingled, in my case, with an awareness of my queer otherness that made it seem impossible for me to go into those nights in a fellowship of the doomed.

No doubt, this is why Ernest Hemingway’s short story “A Day’s Wait” appealed to me when I first read it as a teenager.  It is a story of a boy who, owing to a momentous misunderstanding, believes himself to be dying.  It is that story I chose to write about as an undergraduate student in English literature, even though it has often been dismissed as a minor work of magazine fiction beyond the canon of Hemingway’s supposed greatest.  I, on the other hand, was drawn to what I read as its theme of trivialized sublimity and the terror of that trivialisation.

Until recently, I did not consider that my first last night might have been the beginning of the end, not of childhood – a concept I have long come to question  – but of trust, faith, love and a sense of order and stability.  Now, as I am preparing for a lecture on gothic ruins, I am piecing together those haunting, Frankensteinean fragments of my past and present selves, and I wonder just how much fell apart that one nightfall …

[This entry is dedicated to the students of my Gothic Imagination class, whom, during the last few weeks, I exposed to visualisations of nightmares, sublime views and dystopian visions.]