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John Harvard's Journal | The Undergraduate

Whittling Down

July-August 2016

Illustration by Eric Hanson


Illustration by Eric Hanson

At home there’s a box with my name scrawled atop it. It lies in a cubby in the upstairs guest room and contains, among sundry other small mementos, a scarf, a horseshoe engraved with my name, and two books, which I both wrote and illustrated, back in the polymath days of fifth and sixth grade.

I spent a week back home this semester, among a wistful gathering of relatives and family friends; we had come together to mourn, in ways both functional and personal, the passing of a matriarch. While there, I also went through many boxes, paring, weeding, and tossing away the bones of my childhood, decocting and distilling them until the brightest remnants could be held in a single cardboard cube.

There was never a question of discarding the books I’d written when I was 11 and 12. I’m still exorbitantly proud of these juvenilia. They seem to me now the purest thing I’ve ever done, complete and whole in a foreign way, as though they were the products of a long-forgotten craft.

In a way, this was a rehearsal—going through the things I’d written when young, whereas soon I’d have to cull a more complicated mass: the uncollected notes of my more recent years, and the books I’d always meant to read. Before I returned to Harvard, my sister-in-law asked if I wanted to take an extra suitcase with me: “For when you have to move out.” She was already thinking about graduation. About the great throwing-out that accompanies it. I said I didn’t think that would be necessary, but the family persisted. My brother pulled me aside and asked, referencing the grand library I’ve amassed at school that everyone just seems to know I have: “What are you going to do with your books?”

I didn’t know.

 

Every single thing I’ve written while at Harvard—essay, memoir, fiction, even what you’re reading right now—began as a Word document with a tail-end section labeled: Disjecta.

I stole the word, the idea, from Samuel Beckett’s Disjecta, an opaque collation of fragments and poems and critical exercises that simply didn’t fit anywhere else in his oeuvre. You get the sense, perusing it, that for Beckett it was a distasteful thing to publish, a bitter book. The pieces it contains that were written in another language remain untranslated; if you are interested in it, Beckett seems to say, you must be a serious scholar (the joke being: perhaps you are too serious).

When I write, the blank space beneath the heading of Disjecta fills up, gradually, with thoughts: the rames of arguments, passels of vocabulary, sheaves of tentative ideas. Some of them I incorporate, others I leave behind. The latter always ache to be mended, to be followed through to whatever their end might be. Disjecta membra—Beckett’s disjecta is a shortening—is often used in the scholarly world to refer to sherds of ancient pottery; they are the leftover things, the whole of which can never be accounted for or completely understood. Like the fragments of my writing, they mean something only obliquely.

For a while now I’ve been worried about the way my mind works. Sometimes it seems I’m incapable of thinking in a continuous way. I came to Harvard as a freshman planning to study English, and at first I hoped that literature, over the course of four years,would come to make sense to me; with time I matured and lowered my hopes and began to wait for just English literature to reveal itself, its heart. Now I’ve struck realist bedrock: I try only to understand writers, one by one and on their own terms.

I wanted something infrangible, unscattered. I wanted the whole ancient pot. What I got was a mind full of tumbling sherds.

When I sit down in my room to write, the books that surround me begin to loom, to threaten. They are bound in glue and thread. They have a definite shape, a claim to wholeness. They seem to gloat, letting me know, in their own silent way, that I’ll never make my way through them all, much less understand them. It seems silly to hold onto them.

Between those thoughts of mine that I’ll never have time to chase down and these alien compendiums, I feel like the epicenter of a knowledge-based Big Bang, with the truth—whatever that might be—rocketing away from me in all directions.

 

I’ve been imagining the day of my departure from Harvard on and off in various iterations for the past few months, though the most ideal versions—I can’t say why—always contain the curious moment when a wise and anonymous Frenchman pulls me suddenly aside at Commencement and reflects airily, “Ah, le grand débouchement!” And I understand him, somehow, miraculously. “The great opening-up,” I think to myself, and I call out to him as he melts into the crowd: “You’ve nailed it!”

There is a promise embosomed in the process of growing up. You hear it all the time. In its most basic form it is something like: Things will come together. “Things,” here, can and does have a number of concrete meanings: the world, your circle of acquaintances, your identity, your mind. But I can’t help worrying about the grand-scale fragmentation that comes with going out into life and that seems, at least to me, more definitive of postgraduation existence. Concretely, this worry makes sense: The people I’ve known will scatter, and the things they meant together will cease to be; they will have meaning only as the fragments of a whole.

And more generally, my interest in disjecta doesn’t exactly bode well for the arrival of the coalescence I’ve been taught to expect. By the time I’ve finished whatever it is I’m writing, the unincorporated disjecta membra—those bits that I haven’t managed to fold into the work’s structure—no longer make sense to me. Though I’ve spent only a week or two writing, already the thoughts that came to me gleaming and eureka-bright have been dulled by the little changes in my mind, my thoughts. They belong to someone else; they make sense only to him.

There’s a sense of pain and anxiety enveloped in the concept of disjecta, one that shows up etymologically. The mother phrase, disjecta membra, can be translated a number of morbid ways, though the first word is typically given as “scattered,” while membra becomes, variously, “limbs,” “fragments,” “members,” “remains.” The phrase itself, as the Oxford English Dictionary informs, has been whittled down from Horace’s disjecti membra poetæ: the “limbs of a dismembered poet,” which nine out of 10 poets agree is the worst type to be.

The pain of cracking, of falling into sherds—the sad thing is that after awhile, if you don’t think about it, you’ll forget even this. And so I’ve begun to suspect that when things begin to make sense—to come together, as the phrase has it—it’s only because we’ve discarded the other pieces.

 

Your standard-issue Harvard College desk comes equipped with three drawers on the right side: the top two of equal size, the bottommost slightly larger, slightly deeper. My third drawer is currently playing host to 24 dining-hall coffee cups, which I will probably return. The upper two are brimful of papers: old essays bearing indecipherable professorial comments, notes I’ve scribbled to myself, half-hazy sketches and drawings, receipts, lists (to-do, shopping, and otherwise), sticky notes sans stick, problem sets, and all the other delible scraps that tend to flock together with time.

For four years this mass has accreted: at the end of each, I bagged it up, stuck it in storage, and transferred it, a few months later, to newer drawers. But now I’m not sure where I’ll end up. The state of future storage is likewise unknown. Can I expect drawers where I end up settling? Will they be as nice, as dry, as preservative as those I’ve come to know? Or will there only be drawer-shaped holes in the wall that my papers will have to share with dust, spiders, the occasional opossum?

Disjecta, I’ve only just learned, shares a root with dejected. Both stem from a verb whose chief connotation, in the Latin, is to throw, or throw down. Hence the lowness of spirits, the melancholia that pertains to dejected. And hence the thrown-outness, the scattered-to-the-winds-ness of disjecta.

I know it’s not absolutely necessary that I toss the contents of my drawers, or any one of my books, that I throw them out, down, or into the trash. It’s not impossible to hold onto everything. If you’re an adult with disposable income, and you want to do it, there’s literally nothing stopping you. You can make a budget and set aside a stack of cash and purchase as many storage sheds as you’ll need; you can cart your childhood drawings and photographs and books about and stack them up and continue doing this until a worldly-wise storage-shed attendant claps you on the shoulder and suggests that it’s time to move on.

You can do this, but I doubt you’d get anything more than back pain out of it. I know I’d like to compile and preserve all the scraps of paper and thought that have come to me during college. But the point of synthesis has passed; I can’t make sense of them anymore. They’re far too scattered—it would take an expert on me, a scholar of my life, to draw them all together, and I’m far from that.

I’ve begun to whittle things down. When I tire of working through drawers, I move to my bookshelves, and vice versa. Some things, I’ve found, are easy to part with. Others I know I must keep. But there are trickier cases as well, things that evoke a dim pang of recognition, that recall images of my younger selves—and I have to guess whether I’ll ever make sense of them. I have to decide if I still harbor, somewhere in the obscurity of memory, the thoughts that once tied me to these objects.

Back home I’ve got two books with white cardboard covers, and they seem the last pure thing I ever did. 

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