The Assay Interview Project: Mary Cappello
December 7, 2016
Mary Cappello is the author of five books of literary nonfiction, including Awkward: A Detour (a Los Angeles Times bestseller); Swallow, based on the Chevalier Jackson Foreign Body Collection in Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum; and, most recently, Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, Salon.com, The Huffington Post, on NPR, in guest author blogs for Powells Books, and on six separate occasions as Notable Essay of the Year in Best American Essays. A Guggenheim and Berlin Prize Fellow, a recipient of The Bechtel Prize for Educating the Imagination, and the Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize, Cappello is a former Fulbright Lecturer at the Gorky Literary Institute (Moscow), and currently Professor of English and creative writing at the University of Rhode Island.
About Life Breaks In: Some books start at point A, take you by the hand, and carefully walk you to point B, and on and on.
This is not one of those books. This book is about mood, and how it works in and with us as complicated, imperfectly self-knowing beings existing in a world that impinges and infringes on us, but also regularly suffuses us with beauty and joy and wonder. You don’t write that book as a linear progression — you write it as a living, breathing, richly associative, and, crucially, active, investigation. Or at least you do if you’re as smart and inventive as Mary Cappello.
What is a mood? How do we think about and understand and describe moods and their endless shadings? What do they do to and for us, and how can we actively generate or alter them? These are all questions Cappello takes up as she explores mood in all its manifestations: we travel with her from the childhood tables of “arts and crafts” to mood rooms and reading rooms, forgotten natural history museums and 3-D View-Master fairytale tableaux; from the shifting palette of clouds and weather to the music that defines us and the voices that carry us. The result is a book as brilliantly unclassifiable as mood itself, blue and green and bright and beautiful, funny and sympathetic, as powerfully investigative as it is richly contemplative.
“I’m one of those people who mistrusts a really good mood,” Cappello writes early on. If that made you nod in recognition, well, maybe you’re one of Mary Cappello’s people; you owe it to yourself to crack Life Breaks In and see for sure.
“Are we sometimes not astonished by the beautiful futility of encountering some sudden fugitive moment that renders us so vulnerable to ‘unanticipated forms’: of perhaps an inner light or an inner dark? Here, with Mary Cappello’s ravishing prose, lies a vibrating scalpel that intricately parts the belly of little swirling vertigos that we have no name for but know so deeply.”
Julija Šukys: Mary, first of all, congratulations on your book. Life Breaks In is learned, rigorous, and, at times, intimate and devastating. On the one hand, the text is incredibly wide-ranging: you take the reader through subjects as varied as Joni Mitchell’s music, mood rings, your father’s darkness, your friend’s death from cancer, taxidermy, and the weird queer history of children’s books. But on the other hand, your book is impressively focused and disciplined as it continually loops back to thinking about mood as sound, as space, as reading, as color. It does so in an almost oblique way and manages to look closely at something that is otherwise almost invisible.
You have written that the challenge of the book was “not to chase mood, track it, or pin it down: neither to explain nor define mood – but to notice it – often enough, to listen for it – and do something like it without killing it in the process” (15). It seems like mood is something that you can only see through the prism of something else, like those ghosts in children’s cartoons that become visible in the dust beaten out of a chalkboard brush. Can you say a little bit about how you came to your subject? And can you talk a bit about the title, Life Breaks In, and the role that rupture plays in a meditation on mood?
Mary Cappello: This question of how we come to our subjects is perpetually intriguing to me. Some subjects for me have been urgent givens (for example, cancer); others, I’ve arrived at through intricately circuitous routes even though, once there, they greeted me with a kind of “ah-ha” or “but-of-course” feeling (e.g., awkwardness); still others were the result of an accidental encounter, what Barthes might call a “lucky find,” almost like a punctum in photography (e.g., the Chevalier Jackson foreign body collection). Mood happened for me in yet another way—in its own way—and it was as though it was always hovering. The subject has played around the edges of my consciousness for many years, and, by the time I brought the book to completion, it felt as though it was the work toward which all of my work had been tending.
Sometimes I’ll be reading a book I’ve read a thousand times, and I’ll find marginalia that I wrote in it dating back twenty years relative to mood. I guess I’m trying to say that mood felt to me like the thing I’ve been writing about all along but that had never announced itself as such—which makes me wonder if this is a sort of experience relevant to all writers. Unlike my other ostensible “subjects,” mood seemed to be following me rather than vice versa.
The title is a phrase lent to me by Virginia Woolf who wrote these wonderfully suggestive lines in one of her diary entries: “How it would interest me if this diary were ever to become a real diary: something in which I could see changes, trace moods developing; but then I should have to speak of the soul, & did I not banish the soul when I began? What happens is, as usual, that I’m going to write about the soul, & life breaks in.”
I’m really interested in the time/space that mood exists in—I mean, moods seem to be a bedrock of our being (we’re never not in a mood of one sort or another), at the same time that moods seem to exist quite apart from our ability to perceive them. Are moods co-terminus with the thing we call “life” or “living”? Does life interrupt mood or do moods interrupt life? This is related to the aesthetic problem that you refer to in your question—I mean, here’s this thing that is ephemeral, amorphous but ever-present and foundational. It will not let you pin it down, and it might only come into view when you aren’t trying to discover it. If you look too directly at it, it may not show itself, or will vanish. And the minute it does materialize, life is sure to break in, and poof, it’s gone.
I hope that readers take pleasure in the unexpected ways in which breaks enter in to the book, and I’d hardly exhaust those ways if I mentioned just a few, like day break and breaks in clouds; breakthroughs and heartbreaks; the breaking of a silence and the breaking into song.
As you know, I read this book very slowly, in fits and starts. At first, my pace embarrassed me (confession: I’m a slow reader at the best of times), but the deeper into the book I got and the more I thought about what you were doing in it, the more I made peace with my meandering methods.
You’ve subtitled the book “A Mood Almanack” and elucidate it like this: “the almanack is a revelatory book and a book of secrets. A book whose tidings we look out for and consult from time to time…. A book to wander in a desert with…. A book whose only requirement is that we float into and out from the streets where we live, pausing long enough to feel the mood beneath us shift.” (16) It occurs to me now that this is a book that values the slow reveal and invites a reader to go off, wander around, and return according to her inclinations (or, indeed, mood).
Can you say a little more about your notion of the book as almanack? (By the way, my autocorrect keeps trying to remove the k at the end of that word!)
All that I can say about the slow reveal is: yes, yes, yes. Meandering methods, both in writing and in reading, yes. I’m so glad that this is how you experienced the book, Julija. I seem to have found my ideal reader!
Mood called for what I describe as “cloud-writing,” which asked for an aesthetic of hover and drift. Like my second book, Awkward: A Detour, this book can be dipped into, read front to back, or not. For the reader interested in moving front to back, the book is structured to allow for various more and more voluble returns (as you note in your opening lines here), and a frame tale relative to voice and mood (most especially, the role of the voices of our earliest caretakers, how we may have come to receive those voices and, if we grew up to be writers, how we later constructed voice-imbued atmospheres in the form of writing).
I had a lot of reasons for calling the book an “almanack,” and with that older spelling, too. I wanted to nod in the direction of those early autobiographical experiments of Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack, but also the less well-known book by Djuna Barnes, her Ladies Almanack (1928) and its wonderful sub-title, “showing their Signs and their Tides; their Moons and their Changes; the Seasons as it is with them; their Eclipses and Equinoxes; as well as a full Record of diurnal and nocturnal Distempers, written & illustrated by a lady of fashion.”
Formally, though, the “almanack” appealed to me for its generic specificity and range: an almanack (especially a “farmer’s alamanack”) shares a kinship with mood-writing because it’s a place we turn to for chartings of weather patterns and cloud movements, the prospect of a good harvest or a drought, and it’s a space where different types of knowledge on a subject can intermingle, where folk wisdom meets philosophy, aphorism and recipes coincide—more to the point, where a kind of non-knowledge or useless knowledge (à la Gertrude Stein) prevails. I didn’t structure the book like an almanack—this would have felt artificial to me—but when I learned more about the etymology of the word, I couldn’t believe how fitting it was for a mood-book: from classical Arabic, munaāk, it refers to a place where a camel kneels, a station on a journey or the halt at the end of a day’s travel. Simultaneously, it derives from cognate Arabic words for “calendar,” and “climate.” This blew my mind because it seemed to bring together so many mood-relatives: temporality, charts and unchartability, atmosphere, rest and pause. There is also a warmth to the Farmer’s Almanack that I was hoping to invoke.
It seems to me that the valuing of protracted, subconscious meditation (what I think you call letting an idea work on you) over quick understanding is related to the following passage on teaching a weirdly affectless generation. Here’s the passage that struck me:
I work with a whole new generation of students who share a trait of affectlessness, or at least for whom moods, good or bad, fail to register on their faces. Are their studied deadpans simply a manifestation of screen face or computer pall? Do they have interior states they’re wary of revealing, or is that state in techno-experimental transition? (118)
Colleagues and friends have made a similar observation: that no matter what they do at front of a class, they find themselves staring out at a sea of blank faces. Is the current concern with affect actually a result of an anxiety that affect is disappearing? That screens are somehow draining us of our capacity (or perhaps willingness) to communicate through facial expressions? Is affect in danger or is such a suggestion overblown?
I’m interested in faces. And what we can or cannot read on a face, including what we are able or willing to show on our own faces. I’m really bad at hiding what I’m feeling—I’m more like an open book type of personality, everything readable on my face. On the other hand, since it’s impossible to perceive ourselves, I’m often surprised to discover in candid photographs that a lot of the time I have a furrowed brow when what I think I am doing is smiling!
In Awkward, I did a lot of thinking about what it means to face something, and what it means to turn away, with an emphasis on seeking out alternative ways of facing, re-orienting the dominant orientation of facing forward. Currently, I’m reading a book on the face that is extraordinary—philosopher Hagi Kenaan’s The Ethics of Visuality: Levinas and the Contemporary Gaze, parts of which I’m thinking of teaching next semester when I return to Lucy Grealy’s amazing Autobiography of a Face in a Literature and Medicine class. A very brief description of the aims of The Ethics of Visuality suggests that it is “a philosophical response to the gradual disappearance of the human face from the life-world of contemporary culture.”
Everything needs to be contextualized—looking, being seen, facing, or turning away are also matters of privilege and power. I recently had the good fortune of seeing Anna Deavere Smith’s latest masterpiece, Notes from the Field, in New York City, in which more than one of her character-interviewees makes the point that, for a person of color, in the streets of Baltimore, say, making eye contact with a police officer can be a matter of life and death. Simply looking in the direction of a cop seems to function as an invitation to brutality.
Getting back to what some of us might be noticing in classrooms, I have wondered if this new phenomenon is gendered since its seems more applicable to my (self-presenting) female students than to my male students. Right now—I mean, post-election—I’m not really dealing with blank faces though. More like, faces that are registering fear, shame, confusion, sadness, and, thankfully, hunger and curiosity. In those moments when we are met with the affectless younger person, we might just be encountering a kind of hiding in full light, a learned protectiveness and need for insulation. Younger people live in a much more exposure-oriented universe, after all, in light of the social media realms in which so many of them reside. Then, too, each generation has its own protocols of cool—it’s not that feeling has disappeared, but that it’s not cool to register, manifest, or convey that you are a feeling being. We could also apply such politics of affect to contemporary literature—is your writing hip to the moment of a certain archness? A smugness that doesn’t quite succeed at being a critique of sentimentality?
When you ask if affect is in danger, this seems related to the question of whether we are entering a moodless age, or one where, at least in a lot of contemporary art films, mood is catapulted to extra-terrestrial realms. I think what we can be sure of is that something is bound to happen to the idea and experience of “the inner life” as an effect of the digital age. And that, digital world or not, a lot of people seem to be registering new brands of numbness. I find that people definitely want to feel things—it’s a sign of our being alive, no? And it’s why the invitation to a “mood room” is met with intrigue and interest. (You won’t believe this but as I tried to type a parentheses and period a moment ago, a smiley face emoticon appeared on my screen. Need I say more?)
After I gave a talk at Brown University’s medical school one year, a med student told me about this phenomenon known as ASMRs (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response). Entire communities of people have sprung up who share the experience of what they call an “unnamed feeling” brought on by seemingly unremarkable stimuli like the crinkling of paper or the sound of a whispering voice. There are youtube videos galore that go on for hours in which someone engages in a banal activity (see paper scrunching) while, we have to suppose, some other human watches in his isolation booth back home hopeful to arrive at this “unnamed feeling.” It’s hard not to see in this movement something terribly dystopic. Here’s a conundundrum: a cousin-in-law of mine who experiences ASMR and who heard me give a reading from my new book told me that if the book came out as an audio book with me doing the reading, she would buy it and give it to all of her friends in the ASMR community because the way that I read had the same effect on her as an ASMR recording. I’m not sure what to do with that information yet!
I especially appreciated your meditations on reading and writing.
You are a reader who values complexity: “I like writing that resists its reader; I’m suspicious of the easy invitation that bows to protocol, or the stuff that chatters recognizably, incapable of interestingly interrupting my day by making my heart skip a beat or requiring that I listen with my eyes.” (132).
You are also a writer who values simplicity: “The writing voice I’ve always claimed to aspire to – my voice imago – is characterized by a purity, sparseness, and minimalism” (314).
Can you talk about how these two impulses or affections or perhaps trajectories work on you as a thinker? As an essayist? Is the tension between complexity and minimalism a productive one for you?
In what ways can a minimalist text resist its reader?
What does it mean to listen with one’s eyes?
You’ve really gotten to the heart of my aesthetic impulses here, Julija. I place a high premium on purity of line—the clarity of a Natalia Ginzburg, or what has been said of Sarah Kofman’s book, Rue Ordener, Rue Labat, by her translator, Ann Smock, “that it is bathed in a lucidity unclouded by insight”; more recently, finding a disarming directness, spareness, which is also not to be confused with ease, in the magnificent collection from Aleksander Hemon, The Book of My Lives which I’m currently teaching. The minimalism I’m interested in also finds its origin in poetic distillation. When you ask how a minimalist text resists its reader, I’m reminded of one of my favorite examples. It appears in David Antin’s talk-poem, Lemons, where he makes a distinction between convex and concave images. A concave image works the way suspense narratives do. It’s an image that lures us into a space of causes and effects, where we want to know what’s next, and we are drawn by such an image to follow it down a path that may or may not fulfill the twists and turns of our interpretive desiring. The convex image, on the other hand, is a figure for minimalism. He offers as his example the lemon that accompanies a Campari soda. It’s meaningless but necessary. It brings you to attention and it resists you. You can’t have it, and you’re not even entirely sure you want it, but you are held in place by it somehow. This sort of image activates desire too, of the tantalizing and ungraspable sort. It’s less about movement and more about placement. The lemon that resists you.
Anyway, I’m not sure that complexity and simplicity are opposed per se, because minimalism is, to my mind, complex. But, yes, there might be an animating tension between those two poles in my work. And maybe there’s a companionate tension at play between asceticism and excess. As a queer writer and a woman, I’m interested in exceeding my placement, in playing language’s saxophone beyond itself (it’s what I love about jazz), I’m interested in lavish, campy display, and indulgence. Jouissance. Whether it’s long-form or short form, I want a writing that makes an exquisite demand. But I’m also interested in what becomes possible when we stillsomething without capturing or arresting it. To hold it before the eye or ear momentarily and to appreciate its disappearance just as much. To hone in and distill. To mine a trace in the form of one word, or phrase.
I’d love to talk with you at more length about this question because, really, this is just the tip of the iceberg, and I want to learn from the ways that you consider it as a thinker and writer.
As for listening with one’s eyes, it’s something I want to learn from the forgotten American impressionist, Charles Daniel Hubbard, whom I write about in the book. When Hubbard orients a habitat diorama by the sound of a bird that he pictures in the rapidity or slowed down chirp of a particular rhythm of color, or staccato brush-stroke, he is listening with his eyes, and inviting us to do the same.
In the book you raise questions about pathologization and whether some people diagnosed with mood disorders are simply more aware of certain shifts that are actually universal and deeply human. “In other words,” you write, “is a mood disorder a disease, or a state, of attention? And what of rhythm? That we are creatures dependent on sleep-wake oscillations, cyclic intervals, synced or not, to the presence of light, minutes, or hours, or days and nights – our circadian and ultradian rhythms – might play a part in a relative absence or presence of a feeling of ‘mood’” (112).
I like this question that you pose in the book. It seems related to discussions surrounding certain kinds of disabilities that are now being reframed as alternate ways of being in the world: deafness (Deaf Culture) or schizophrenia (deciding to live with auditory hallucinations rather than trying to silence them with powerful pharmaceuticals), for example. I wonder if mood disorders might be similarly reframed in certain cases.
Has working on this book shifted your thinking about mood disorders?
I am no expert on mood disorders in the traditional scientific or social scientific sense, but my family of origin presented me with a range of moody people and types of moodiness. It’s possible I had to become expert in reading people’s moods in order to survive. Certain members of my family had problems with impulse control, or were subject to extreme mood shifts, from violent outbursts or crying jags to sudden elation. In the midst of all of that, how do you develop your own mood repertoire? How do you come to have a mood you can call your own? “Our moods are the residues of familial feeling”—that’s one succinct formulation I arrive at in the book.
I’m also very aware of the blunting of all of mood’s complex shadings by “depression” as a signifier, and a bottom line premise of my book is that mood is the basis for a lucrative pharmacology even though there is no agreement either in the hard or social sciences on what mood IS.
My thinking on “mood disorders” was helped by Emily Martin’s brilliant cultural analysis, Bipolar Expeditions: Mania and Depression in American Culture, insights from which I fold into a segment of the book called “The Flower Inclines Toward Blue.” Martin helped me to think about the ways in which forms of self-management and self-regulation—deeply yoked to social management and social regulation—take the place of self-expression, self-awareness, and a whole host of other possibilities. And the ways in which the very same mood states that are popularized and culturally encouraged are, at the very same time, pathologized.
Does anyone know what is truly meant by this category, “mood disorder”? Or is it a psychiatric invention? Are people who suffer from such disorders beset by a hyper-awareness of what the presumably normal person fails to notice or note? In that sentence that you quote, I was wondering if the so-called disordered, are more compelled to attend to mood—moods don’t simply pass them by but demand their whole-hearted presence. All of us are subject to our moods, but the mood disordered might be those who find themselves called to a particular type of attention by their moods. In which case—and I don’t have room to spell this out here, but I’ll just suggest it: such folks can be found among the greatest essayists, Montaigne, Emerson, Barthes, all of whom took mood as the attentive call to which essaying was a response.
My favorite section of the book is “Rooms,” where you think deeply about how physical surroundings work on us. In that section, you write of spaces that lend themselves to mood: into which we can disappear and through which we can access altered states.
Amongst the most important such spaces, for you (and for me) are libraries: “especially listening to vinyl in an undergraduate library; reading books as a form of listening, reading as a steam bath or sauna of the mind; leaving a library in an altered state and nearly getting hit by a car” (157). Reading rooms, gardens, museums, and writers’ studios give us access not only to other dimensions (“when we write, we’re in conversation with the dead” ) but also to buried or not-yet-fully realized versions of ourselves (“when we are in a mood, we are in conversation with some former self…that has never fully come into the light” ).
Can you say something about space, place, mood, and creativity? Are mood rooms something to seek out and to create? Or can any space become a mood room? In other words, are mood rooms in the eye of the beholder or is there such a thing as a universal mood room?
I’m glad you enjoyed that section so much!
Your question made me want to try to formulate a working definition for a universal mood room, and this is what I came up with: it’s the dwelling place that pre-dated each of our entries into language but that, in holding us—and it may have been through the voice of the other—lent us a net for experiencing our own ontological estrangement. It’s not a place that any of us can quite return to, but it might be the motivator for artistic creation: a mood haunt that haunts us, and not necessarily displeasingly.
Early in the book, I ask that we “consider a relation between moods and rooms as reciprocal: we experience moods as containers of ourselves and we create rooms in their image at the same time that we create rooms to alter our sense of those invisible containers: our moods.” I believe that if we were asked to think about it, we’d each be able to identify the rooms—significant architectures—that helped to constitute us as feeling subjects in the world; each of us has our own repertoire of rooms that have shaped the sort of feeling beings we have become.
Mood rooms are there for the asking, and they are definitely something to seek out and to create, alone and together. Since writing the book, my partner and I or friends and I will find ourselves somewhere and suddenly remark, “That’s a mood room!” or we’ll understand a place retrospectively now as a mood room. Now, I feel like I’m always on the look out for them, and there are so many I didn’t even try to write about in the book, from an unusual cemetery in Berlin to a an opera house the size of a trailer in Munich.
Recently, post-election, this week, at least, I’ve found myself desiring a very dark, cove-like, cave-like room in a library where I can do nothing but read, read, and read. In solitude. And without a computer screen. Books, not brightly-shining digital files. But I’d also love to be with people and engage in real discussion about what’s going on—again, over and against FB chatting and web surfing.
Just today I read an article in the New York Times about the phenomenon of “anger rooms,” and I wondered if the Times thought reporting on such rooms was timely given the combination fear of and predictions of Americans’ anger, past, present, and still-to-come—the anger that was the supposed motivator of the outcome of the election; and the anger that the outcome is fueling; and the anger that will erupt when none of the president-elect’s more benign promises comes to pass. Anger rooms, by the way, are businesses that have sprung up that offer a consumer the chance to smash objects—often enough computer parts, but not only—with things like baseball bats for a nominal fee. I want to say that such places are the opposite of mood rooms and more like impulse management padded cells. The idea of them scares the shit out of me, but this could be because my father smashed things in our house constantly and it never put him in a better mood. Once objects fail to do the trick, people who find release by assaulting the physical world eventually move onto living things. Jerk-off rooms like this are not the sort of mood rooms I’m interested in cultivating.
Either in the same issue of the Times, or maybe just the next day, there was an article about a hallucinogen that is being used to quell depression in cancer patients, many of them terminal. What’s entirely unclear about this is why the drug is only being made available to cancer patients. How does the hallucinogen work? “One theory is that psyilocybin interrupts the circuitry of self-absorbed thinking—making way for a mystical experience of selfless unity.” This distinction isn’t really clear to me—it sounds like trading in one type of absorption for another. Look: what I’m trying to say is, one day, an article on anger rooms, the next day an article about a possible antidote for depression carefully dispensed by scientists who will only make the drug available to the terminally ill. It’s obvious why I feel the need to retreat into a library, stop being distracted by unprocessed media stimuli, and do some real reading, which is to say, some real mooding.
Finally, let’s talk a bit about taxidermy. In the penultimate section of the book, you take your readers on an exploration of a curious natural history collection housed at the L. C. Bates Museum, located on the grounds of a former orphanage called the Good Will Home Association. You visit the first time with your friend Caren. Both of you find the place with its strange dioramas complete with impressionistic painted backdrops utterly hilarious if fascinating. When you return a second time, Caren has died of cancer and her absence fills the museum. This time, you see the place differently: its logic, its mission the beauty of its founder’s intention all reveal themselves.
The entire section is a gorgeous meditation on life and what we leave behind. It’s about dust, about debris, and the dignity of small lives. In some ways, I think this section is about reconciliation and forgiveness (are these moods?), because it’s here that we encounter a scene in which you read to your formerly abusive father now suffering “the brutality of old age” (219).
“Our lives are sedimented,” you write (184). Can you say something about this notion and its connection to taxidermy, to memory, love, forgiveness, and this funny orphanage-museum? (Just a small question…ha! Sorry.)
Thanks for this beautiful, generous reflection on this section, Julija. It really is the heart of the book, and maybe its heart-beat. The book inside the book. Your invocation of the scene in which I read to my father, sadly subdued by Parkinson’s disease, is making me think of the Hubbard/Hinckley habitat dioramas as storybooks for the kids, too, scenes of reading, if you will, but synesthetic storybooks like those in Margaret Wise Brown’s “quiet noisy book” series.
There’s nothing to say that as adults we should stop being read to. My partner, Jean and I read things aloud to each other all the time. And what could be more beautiful than the moment when a child has the capacity to read back to the parent from within the beautiful co-creation of a sonorous envelope?
Of course where my particular father was concerned, the sonorous envelope was undone because he used his voice like a weapon. Which I suppose makes the scene of reading back to him in adulthood all the more poignant. I knew in my heart it was the gift he needed, that we all need, and maybe the source of his own desperately broken voice.
The LC Bates Museum in Hinckley, Maine (not far from Waterville) is a very special place, and I hope people will want to go there after reading the book. It’s an off the beaten path wonder-world maintained by a tiny staff—and a wonderful Director—as a labor of love, and actually the remnant of a more elaborate educational and philanthropic plan founded in the late 19thcentury that was collapsed, dispersed, and even vandalized through the 1950s-1970s. That the museum and its absolutely singular habitat dioramas—especially the Charles D. Hubbard bird rooms—survive at all is rather amazing. There is still a book waiting to be written that could do justice to the history of Good Will Hinckley, and I hope an historian might be encouraged to do that sometime in the not too distant future. I was focused primarily on the “mood rooms” created by this curious species of “impressionist” diorama conceived of and manufactured by artist Hubbard.
The director of the museum would never want a visitor to apprehend dust or decay in the museum, but from where I stand, those elements majorly contribute to the place’s magic, without which, there is no mood—or not one of such evocative proportion. One of the very greatest contemporary photographers to work with decay—Rosamond Purcell—is more eloquent on this subject than I could ever be, and Rosamond kindly allowed me to use some of her photographs set in the museum in my book.
There was a time when I wanted to write a book about taxidermy—do you have a lot of books like this in your studio?, started, but not finished, planned but not executed? Life does have a way of breaking in!
I think, rather than write this one, the subject smuggled its way into the mood book. Back when I’d been formulating the book that never came to be, I had even devised a clever title—“Posthumous Postures,” and I was thinking it would be a meditation on scared states, wild states, and skin, with trips through and around Hitchcock, Thoreau, the ornithologist/photographer Cordelia Stanwood, Raphael Peale, and my own psyche.
It’s safe to say that taxidermy is something that only humans do to other living things—it’s such a peculiar practice—the decision to preserve, mount, capture, tame once living things, to, in effect, stylize decay. Bringing the subject into concert with mood—thanks to Hubbard’s mood rooms—I came to realize that my interest was always part of a more “sedimented” affinity for dioramas and window boxes of all sorts, with some early prototypes being walnut dioramas that a beloved great uncle used to make at Christmas time but that he’d fill with secular themes, and the unique-to-South Philadelphia (where my father grew up) tri-partite row home windows, vernacular assemblages that drew my child eye when we’d walk in those literally tight-knit neighborhoods with my Sicilian grandparents. Then there was the pet section of a Woolworth’s that was a centerpiece to the working class neighborhood where I grew up. The animals in that place were only ever half-alive.
All of this began to feel uncanny once inside of Hubbard’s rooms, and especially when I brought it into play with my father’s paralysis from Parkinson’s, and his preoccupation in his final days with sending what seemed like his own natural history collections through the mail—he seemed to be trying to catalog all of the world’s wonders—from the beautiful to the hideous before he died.
Maybe the best way to bring across my notion of sedimentations—which is meant to invoke something as organic as silt and dust (remember man that thou are dust) at the same time that it carries the delicate weight of each person’s psychosocial history in time and space on the planet—would be to close the occasion of our conversation with the description of the idea that appears in the book.
Our lives are sedimented: every locus of our present being just one shelf inside a layer of otherwise invisible shelves nestled like Chinese boxes. The older we get, the deeper the cabinetry’s plumb line, the more rickety the expanse of, just now, this study in which I write, a desk, inside of which resides an earlier instantiation of the writer or reader at work at a dining room table, and, before that, a metal-topped surface on which my father had us lay pinecones in a rare moment of serene sharing, and before that a Catholic schoolroom desk with defunct ink wells inside of which I imagined monsters, and before that a play table shared with fellow kindergartners, its underside lined with boogers and gum.
Enter a natural history museum and aspire to a condition called “debritude”; experience the lively bric-a-brac, nature’s flea market that hints at the soul of things and hallows mere rooms into temples. Once inside a contemporary museum, do I comingle with the Woolworth’s birds of yore, rubbing necks against their feathers? And what does it mean that a mood of intimacy is made possible by the absence of the live creature, the animal made fully present now, hushed but proximate, held inside an architecture, perched inside a room whose display is dependent upon its death?
There’s still so much to talk about: I’ve barely touched on sound or color or studying vs. reading – all are interesting aspects of this book that readers can look forward to discovering for themselves. Thank you for this book. It’s been a pleasure getting to know you through it.
Thank you, Julija, for the deeply engaged exchange. I am incredibly grateful!
Julija Šukys is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Missouri, Columbia, where she teaches the writing of creative nonfiction. She is the author of three books, including Siberian Exile: Blood, War, and a Granddaughter’s Reckoning and Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaite. Epistolophilia won the 2013 Canadian Jewish Book Award for Holocaust Literature.
This interview originally appeared at julijasukys.com.
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