Hard copies, soft selves

As I get ready for the big move, I sort through – and search for – identity in old papers and Shakespearean dress.

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Maybe egg cartons or coffee cup sleeves? Cardboard boxes, envelopes? I wonder what they’ll become, those hundreds and hundreds of pages, those thousands and thousands of words. I dump load after load of papers I’ve written down the recycling chute in our building.

Each load contains countless late nights. Each load, enough coffee to make a medium-sized country jittery – I’m talking every man, woman, and child. Enough cigarettes to make me cough up a lung years after I’ve even had a smoke. Many miles of pacing the various dorms, houses, and apartments I’ve boarded over my years.

That 50-pager I wrote on the influence of bebop on the prophetic mysticism in Ginsberg’s Howl? One day, someone might be wiping their ass with toilet paper made from it.

Surely most paper is recycled back into paper. Napkins, paper towels. That 50-pager I wrote on the influence of bebop on the prophetic mysticism in Ginsberg’s Howl? One day, someone might be wiping their ass with toilet paper made from it.  Maybe some snotty school kids will one day blow their noses – or wipe away tears – with all those Modernist poems I imitated.

I feel lighter with each load that falls down into the dumpster. I had been lugging these papers around for years. They’ve made it from Cincinnati to Minneapolis, to Southern California. But they’re not going with me to Dublin. My wife and I should be moving there in just a few weeks. We’re very excited, but there’s a lot to be done before we go.

There’s a lot of stuff – a lot of self – to be unloaded.

***

I made sure I had a digital backup of each paper, of course. I scanned those that I didn’t already have on my computer. I ripped out each staple, I pulled off every paper clip. I reread teacher comments and grades. Tucked into some binder-clipped packets are rough drafts; I looked over editing marks I made. A carat, a spelling correction, a pilcrow. A whole paragraph crossed out in red ink.

I also feel a twinge of guilt and sadness, though, when the chute’s door slams shut. I will never get that copy back. On my computer, I can easily open an essay on Keats’ faery imagery from my English major days or a lesson plan on river symbolism in Langston Hughes’ works when I was doing my student teaching. I can do this more easily – and likely more often –  than digging them out of the storage bins, where they’ve sat unread in garages, basements, and closets.

Recycled paper.JPG
There’s a lot of stuff – a lot of self – to be unloaded. Image by me.

 

The hard copies have an aura, I think. They passed from my hands to my professor’s, whose ink marked up the margins, whose fingers thumbed through the pages, whose coffee sometimes spilled onto coversheets, whose messenger bags hauled them from campus to home and back.

The originals have an energy. Like dormant batteries, they hold the charge of so many ideas, arguments, and citations. So much effort.

Have I just outgrown them? Have they accrued within me, like Russian dolls? Does these persons, these unused batteries, still carry a charge?

But they also enshrine so many past selves. John in high school. Early essays on electric bass playing and my dead dog. An encomium to coffee. My parents’ divorce, a theme I revisited so many times in the many reflections required of my liberal arts education. Teacher commentary  on my wordiness, feedback also thematic throughout my school days. Senior-year arguments against the existence of God.

God.

John the musician. Stacks of sheet music of standards for bass parts when I played in jazz ensemble, stacks of guitar tablature for finger-style arrangements for Christmas gigs and weddings I once played. I like to think I could quickly relearn these songs.

John in undergrad. Close readings and technical analyses of obscure mid-century American poetry and existential French philosophy. “Not only/but also” theses, “both/and” ambiguity. Feedback encouraging me to respect length maximums, to go to graduate school.

John with his back to the ivory tower after undergrad. Poems using Roman mythology to register urban poverty when I went into work in public schools instead of a PhD program.

Idealistic graduate school personal statements about education. Research on multiple literacies and differentiated instruction, screeds trumpeting critical pedagogy and constructivist classrooms. Lesson plans, teacher evaluations. Resumes for teaching positions I declined.

Each paper preserves a vision I once had of myself, I once had of the world. They are archives of identity. Of past accomplishments and achievements, of former talents and ambitions.

I read some paragraphs and marvel at my overwritten bullshit. I read many others and wonder where this writer went. What happened to this person? The scholar. The musician. The educator. The idealist. Am I less than these persons now? Have I just outgrown them? Have they accrued within me, like Russian dolls? Does these persons, these unused batteries, still carry a charge?

***

For me, it’s papers. For Shakespeare, it’s dress.

I’ve been thinking a lot about identity since I’ve been reading all this Shakespeare. It’s no doubt an obsession of the Bard. He develops the theme through dress, disguise, costume, uniforms. Only a few plays in, I’ve already extensively encountered Shakespearean dress.

On Shakespeare’s stage, identity is fluid, unstable, slippery. Characters put on and cast off different costumes: different identities, different selves.

In The Taming of the Shrew, the beggar Christopher Sly becomes a noble when the mischievous Lord wraps him in “sweet clothes” and put “rings on his fingers” (Induction 1.34). Lucentio’s servant, Tranio, becomes his master when he dons his “coloured hat and cloak” (1.1.201), then a gentleman’s uniform. By wearing a simple garment in Henry V, the great king disguises himself as a common infantryman: “Lend me thy cloak, Sir Thomas” (4.1.24). In Julius Caesar, Casca thinks Caesar showily refuses Mark Antony’s offer the crown, which would top a king’s, not a republican’s, head: “Why, there was a crown offered him; and being offered, he put it by with the back of his hand, thus; and then the people fell a-shouting” (1.2.222-24). In Antony and Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt makes herself goddess-like with her garbs, as Enobarbus describes: “She did lie / In her pavilion – cloth of gold, of tissue – / O’er picturing that Venus where we see / The fancy outwork nature” (2.2.204-207).

And in the last play I read, Cymbeline, Cloten, when disguising himself as Posthumus, wonders why the lowly gentleman he’s imitating should be any more attractive to Innogen than he is, a prince:

How fit his garments serve me! Why should his mistress, who was made by him that made the tailor, not be fit too? – the rather – saving reverence of the word – for ’tis said a woman’s fitness comes by fits. Therein I must play the workman. I dare speak it to myself, for it is not vainglory for a man and his glass to confer in his own chamber. I mean the lines of my body are as well drawn as his: no less young, more strong, not beneath him in fortunes, beyond him in the advantage of the time, above him in birth, alike conversant in general services, and more remarkable in single oppositions. Yet this imperceiverant thing loves him in my despite. What mortality is! (4.1.2-13).

(Cloten’s decapitated before he ever realizes he’s an asshole – and that he smells bad. Yes, Shakespeare takes to the time to make sure the audience knows that Cloten literally stinks.)

On Shakespeare’s stage, characters could transform themselves by dress. They can become – and un-become – kings with donning and doffing of crowns. Identity is fluid, unstable, slippery. Characters put on and cast off different costumes: different identities, different selves.

But dress was also deterministic in Elizabethan England, as Stephen Greenblatt observes in his introductory materials to my Norton Shakespeare. In Cymbeline, Innogen orders Posthumus’ servant to fetch her a disguise: “…provide me presently / A riding-suit no costlier than would fit a franklin’s housewife” (3.2.75-77). She is referring to sumptuary laws of the day, which, among other things, regulated the different kinds of clothes different kinds of people could wear. Identity was ordered and prescribed based on class.

Where is the true self in all this? Cymbeline suggests that one’s true character will eventually show through. As the banished Belarius remarks, “How hard it is to hide sparks of nature!” (3.3.79). And yet how easy it is not to know ourselves. Referring to the Cymbeline’s two sons, which he kidnapped out of revenge and raised in the woods of Wales, he follows with: “These boys know little they are sons to th’ King…” (3.3.80).

Perhaps Shakespeare urges us to defy these fashion trends, so to speak. As he prepares a final stand against the Romans, Posthumus cries: “Let me make men know / More valour in me than my habits show. / Gods, put the strength o’ th’ Leonati in me. / To shame the guise o’ th’ world, I will begin / The fashion – less without and more within” (5.1.29-33). Yet, Posthumus makes his charge dressed as a poor Briton soldier. Not quite the person the person we meet at the beginning of the play.

No wonder it can be so hard to pick out an outfit in the morning.

***

I cast the last load of papers down the dark slot. There is a brief silence before it crashes on top of the pile of refuse four stories below. So many pages once in order, now scattered about empty beer bottles,  Amazon boxes, half-rinsed cans of beans. Where am I in all this?

Paper gets recycled into paper, yes. Including new office paper, blank and waiting for the ink of new words, new identities, new selves. Perhaps, one day, I’ll be loading into the printer for a new document I’ve written some paper recycled from all those many words, all those many pages, I once wrote.

Author: John Kelly

I write about word origins buzzing in news and culture at mashedradish.com (@mashedradish). Last year, I read the complete works of Shakespeare and blogged about it at shakespeareconfidential.com (@bardconfidensh). You can also find my writing on Atlas Obscura, Mental Floss, Oxford Dictionaries, Nameberry, and Strong Language.

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