Pulp Non-Fiction

With the first commercial production of corrugated cardboard boxes around the turn of the century – making it possible for paper safely to send itself to itself by itself – the Age of Paper had reached its zenith (12).
Ian Sansom,  Paper: An Elegy

Paper Mosaic by Victoria Accardi

Paper Mosaic by Victoria Accardi

Ah paper. It’s an addiction. Ubiquitous, inescapably handy, romantic, radical, and deeply pleasurable. Ian Sansom understands. More than offering his condolences and commiserations, however, he, as it turns out, is something of a pusher.

‘Junk,’ Burroughs writes, ‘is the ideal product….the ultimate merchandise. No sales talk necessary. The client will crawl through a sewer and beg to buy…The junk merchant does not sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product…The addict…needs more and more junk to maintain a human form…[to] buy off the Monkey’ (47)

Burroughs? Wait a second…here I was innocently reading a book about paper – (the book itself, by the way, is a lovely specimen to hold: elegant proportions, not too large, thick cream-colored paper one’s fingers simply must caress [Fedrigoni Edizioni Cream to be exact] in [as the colophon tells us]  ITC Giovanni book typeface….but I digress).

The chances are, if you are reading this book, you are no better or worse than William S. Burroughs. The chances are, you have a serious problem: you’re an addict. You have been sold to a product. You have a monkey on your back. And that monkey is made of paper (47).

Damn it.

‘Paper is the material of temporary notation. It doesn’t make a big difference whether this is in writing or is three-dimensional…It’s a strange anything-material that can be anything, but is rarely itself…Basically it’s the “Zelig” of all materials’ (Thomas Demand quoted 128).

Sansom takes his readers on an irreverent but elucidating romp through the history and myriad uses of this most amazing material. Ephemera, toys, advertisements, art, cigarette and toilet paper, nothing is sacred. I got completely side tracked by a mere mention of an essay written by Junichiro Tanizaki  “In Praise of Shadows” in which Tanizaki drolly and bitterly explains his difficulty in designing a house that meets his cultural aesthetic while making use of advancements-in-comfort designed and perfected by Western aesthetics. It was mentioned in Paper: An Elegy in relation to paper used in Japanese architecture, which darken the available light…impractical perhaps, but after reading three or four pages on the garish hideousness of Western lighting habits, particularly where toilets and the attending “physiological delights,” (as the novelist Natsume Soseki wryly describes his morning visit to the toilet) involved are concern, I see his point. I may not turn the lights on in my bathroom every again: “how very crude and tasteless to expose the toilet to such excessive illumination” (Tanizaki 3). Indeed.

Where were we? Ah yes, paper. Sansom’s book is wonderful fun. His writing style is the sort of understated humor that I love, and he presents many obscure and interesting aspects of paper’s long history. Sometimes twisted. Origami, for instance, is not the innocent little craft it appears (although, personally, I find it infuriating, with its ridiculously useless instructions) nevertheless, it was fascinating to learn that it is more of an Upper East Side invention popularized and named by one Lillian Oppenheimer then having any real connection to a long standing Japanese art. Another important contributor to Origami’s popularity was, hilariously,  Gershon Legman, whom Sansom describes as “the maverick Jewish sexologist” (151). Credited with being one of the inventors of the vibrator is among some of his other racy biographical bullet points. Yes, indeedy…paper has a very steamy history. By the time we get to Mary Granville Pendarves Delany, a woman who in her seventies invented the craft of paper flowers, Sansom can’t help just dropping in this gem:

Over the next sixteen years Mrs Delany continued to work scissors and tweezers and bodkin to make more and more of her paper flowers, almost a thousand of them, collecting them alphabetically in albums, which she named her Flora Delanica. The images – ‘intense and vaginal’, according to one of her recent biographers…(165).

Okay then. Paper. Who knew?


12 responses to “Pulp Non-Fiction

  1. Ah! Once again your pointed brilliance and observations inspire me to respond. This time it is with an epic poem (“Epic” as far as length. “Epic” with regard to quality and artistry – Well, who the hell knows?) But with regard to contemplating paper…I, and my angry artist’s avatar is right there with you, toots.

    A response to the NY Times quote, below, from the man who sets sculptures of matchboxes on fire.

    The New York Times `Poetry in Motion’ subway and bus series has merited the dubious honor of inclusion in `Ripley’s Believe It Or Not,’ where its mention was nestled among accounts of a woman who walked across the Australian deserts and of a man who made sculptures out of matchboxes then set them aflame.” -The New York Times Oct. 24, 1994, Lifestyle Section, page B5
    * * *

    Pulp Truth

    Yo, you: New York Times,
    Yeah, you. Big shot.
    You infer by association
    By insult,
    That my matchbook sculptures, my work,
    Is “dubious.”
    As if you were in denial of your own newsprint, paper destiny.
    Your litter box, window washing,
    Paper mache, engine oil blotting, urine soaking,
    Grill and fireplace lighting, damp cut flower,
    Fish wrap, packing crate, buttocks warmer/wiper
    Aftermarket functions,
    Maybe even re-cycled into a match box future;
    If you need it “Continued on page fuck you” spelled out.
    Your physical destiny is shall I say “dubious”
    But you say, you’re what’s on the page?

    As if poetry was not what’s on the page
    And memorized and spoken to lovers and
    Those seeking comfort or wisdom.
    As if poetry had wings of words in the air,
    Set to jazz,
    Set to its own music written note for note
    On paper
    Set to the swaying crowds in a great electric sweat lodges of rooms
    Who get more truth from young anguish and old pain than they do from your weather reports,
    Financial news, Business section. Arts and Leisure.
    I’ll give you your obituaries.
    You do treat dead people nice.

    Oh, you say you want to go
    Word to word with my work?
    Duke it out?
    Let’s take it outside
    Where your paper blows away
    In wind.
    In rain
    Becomes a soggy slush
    That started white and pure. Like snow. Like paper.

    Okay, you say your audiences’ expectations
    Comes from content.
    My content coming from expectation.
    What I set fire to,
    In the minds of those who wait
    With as much anticipation for my flame and heat
    As your Broadway reviews;
    What creations you set fire to.
    What survives your torch.
    What turns to ash and closes
    After Wednesday’s matinee.

    And that woman?
    The one who walked across the match head heat
    Of the Great Victoria, Sandy and Gibson Deserts.
    Now, there’s someone who knows real fire,
    As flat and heat bleached white as blinding paper.
    I will speak for her, too,
    New York Times.
    Backhanding her quest ,
    Belittling the walk itself,
    Her solitary footprints
    Maybe her desire
    Into marginalia.
    But that’s her choice
    Not yours.
    Get off your ass.
    Start walking. Write about it.
    We’ll see how far you get.

    And since we are the content
    You slam Ripley’s too.
    Don’t you think they know who they are?
    It’s a cheap shot ,
    It makes you look even more petty.
    Since, guaranteed, every day you go
    To its pages
    Or ones inspired by them,
    When you’re desperate for facts
    For human records made to be broken
    To report.
    In your paper of broken record.
    Of sly, snarky chat,
    Between friend.
    We’re not friends

    But listen,
    Not to repeat myself,
    You are also heir
    To the same flame
    As my work.
    New York Times.
    All the print that’s news
    To fit when you are lit.

    Oh, and you will be lit.
    Lit up like a Christmas tree.
    Lit by the arsonist’s gaze
    Hypnotically watching
    The blackening printed page,
    All that work,
    All that rage and toil,
    All those words
    Up in smoke.
    Such a waste.
    But necessary
    To keep the greater fire
    To hit the mind.
    Like I succeed in doing
    Every time.
    That’s why I do it.
    Why I use you.
    I’m talking the arson psycho, here,
    Not the pro.
    The one who destroys
    Other people’s lives because he
    Needs the thrill
    Of seeing his name in print.
    Oh, you right, that’s you who gets him off
    You’re his happy ending.
    And he probably wipes his hands
    With your Travel Section
    Where you recommend hidden destinations
    No normal person can afford.

    My work.
    It is humble.
    But it is my effort.
    I walk deserts.
    I feel it sing in the heat,
    Of shape shifting,
    Shriveling corners,
    Melting the concept of size to no size.
    Hot with the news
    That nothing lasts forever.
    Same as you.
    It’s the way I get the world
    To think.

    Imagine this,
    New York Times:
    I set on fire the very page
    On which you infer me dubious.
    And I do so with a match
    I take from my sculpture.
    And then I use you
    To set my work aflame.
    Go figure.
    Much like truth,
    The news is fit to print
    On many things.
    – Richard Marcus

  2. I love, particularly, that you wrote this for some artist whom you may not have, and still may not know anything about. The shear solidarity of the underdogs- Yes. yes.

  3. thanks for this. Great stuff. Many of the newspapers I have trawled through in the 18th century are made of rags, hence their longevity. I have never found when the change to wood pulp happened. also, before literacy became widespread,and parchment lost favour, paper was a luxury material, for crafts and furnishings. Again, I am guessing mass production and mass literacy changed that.

    Date: Thu, 20 Mar 2014 20:03:44 +0000 To: texthistory@outlook.com

    • I believe the change to the dominance of wood pulp was around 1870 in Germany. They just flat ran out of rags, and it was an intense process to break them down as well…still, it is amazing how quickly paper (in general) overtook the world. Paper, especially in the handmade era, was certainly a luxury material, but it was always much cheaper than parchment. And there were many years of overlap, for a time people didn’t consider paper “official.” Long before being put to use in books it was used primarily as record keeping.
      It’s a fascinating history.

  4. Victoria has done a fantastic job with that collage.

  5. Your closing sentence says it all — hahaha! You having me rethinking lights in the toilet now.

  6. That paper mosaic is really cool. I love it!

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