The Archive and Ornament

Simon Reader (University if Toronto)

This post accompanies Simon Reader’s Journal of Victorian Culture article published (2013). It can be read in full here.

“But I fall into the lace of the text, the vellum; caught there, I contemplate my masters.”

Lisa Robertson, Nillings

Manuscript collections may be usefully regarded as ornaments adorning the literary canon. They strike me as a kind of lace bordering otherwise functional clothing. For one thing, getting to the artifacts can be costly. Sitting with Oscar Wilde’s notebooks and marginalia, for instance, is a privilege bestowed on lucky grant winners or the independently wealthy (I am the former). Given the luxury of engaging these objects, it is perhaps fitting that Wilde’s papers should be in Los Angeles, City of Angels with Prada halos.

Nearly all of his manuscripts, correspondence, and ephemera are housed in the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library in the historic L.A. neighborhood of West Adams. Clark (1839-1925) earned millions mining in Montana in the gilded age. At that time his family was as wealthy and famous as the Rockefellers. The name is back in the news because of the death of Hueguette Clark in 2011. Huguette lived in near-total reclusion for the better part of the twentieth century, drawing up competing wills now being contested by her descendants.

Hueguette’s ornaments included paintings by Degas and Monet, and a diamond bracelet auctioned for $400,000. Her half-brother William Jr. (1877-1935) collected ornaments of a different nature, including drafts of The Picture of Dorian Gray, the famous Sarony photographs of Wilde taken upon his arrival in New York in 1882, and Wilde’s Oxford Notebooks, which feature in my article in JVC 18.4 (“Social Notes: Oscar Wilde, Francis Bacon, and the Medium of Aphorism”). It is unclear exactly why Clark Jr. collected these materials, especially given the stigma adhering to them in the long shadow cast by Wilde’s 1895 trials for “acts of gross indecency.”

I spent the Winter of 2011 transcribing Wilde’s “Notebook on Philosophy,” which Wilde kept as an undergraduate at Magdalen College, Oxford, and where he learned, I think, to treat information ornamentally, rather than using it to exhaustively explain the world as his Victorian counterparts might have done. The 300-page “Notebook on Philosophy” contains Wilde’s reading notes on the content of the Greats curriculum. Plato, Aristotle, John Stuart Mill, Francis Bacon, Spencer, Hume, Kant, and Newton all feature, among many others. He contemplates his masters from the lacy edges of a Victorian classical education. He translates the most protracted works into tweet-ready aphorisms and epigrams, efforts that won him top marks in his exams.

Rather than investing in any single theoretical model or discipline, the “Notebook on Philosophy” treats the history of thought as a rich fabric to be arranged into pleats and folds. Wilde’s skill lies in pressing different phrases and philosophies up against one another, creating dialogues between scholarly fields and historical periods through the medium of his aphoristic sparks. It is by means of this technology that he renders information ornamental, lace-like. It has become a commonplace in our time to associate Wilde’s style with new media such as Twitter and Facebook. By turning to his note-taking, I hope to show how deep this connection goes.

Simon Reader is a PhD candidate in the department of English at the University if Toronto

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