EYESHOT TALKS SHIT ABOUT THE VALUE OF MANUSCRIPTS AFTER THE RECENT SALE
OF KEROUAC'S SCROLL
BY THROOP ROEBLING
This bout of shit-talking does a few things:
1. Offers alternative ways to spend the money recently spent on Kerouac's scroll.
2. Asks, without explicitly answering, several questions of the why type.
3. Briefly describes a few well-known manuscripts of the modernist type.
4. Thinks about Kerouac using Microsoft Word; asks, and practically answers, a question of the what if type.
5. Considers the predigital, modernist manuscript vs. the .DOC file.
6. Comes to a semi-logical conclusion about all of this, without relying on words like postmodern or any of its equivalents. This conclusion can be most efficiently accessed by clicking the first appearance of the word conclusion in this sentence.
Alternative Ways To Spend The Money
Recently Spent on Kerouac's Scroll
Each year, more than 100,000 hard-drinking, dope-smoking teenagers buy the trade paperback of Kerouac's On the Road. Untold thousands of kids who save their cash for other purposes, like drinking and drugging, pick up the used copy. Everyone's read it. No one's really loved it. But it's required reading: for postpubescent Americans, it's a rite of passage that originated in a three-week typing frenzy Kerouac unleashed on 120 feet of teletype paper. You can go to Amazon right now and get the paperback for $10.36. You can't get the original scroll, however. It's just been sold for $2.4 million.
With that kind of cash you could pay one-fourth of Allen Iverson's annual Reebok endorsement. Or you could stand a round of pints for 685,714 of your closest friends. Or fly over a dirtpoor urban area in a hot-air balloon and let loose a flashflood of 240,000 ten-dollar bills, or better yet -- if you were feeling equally generous and mischevious -- you could throw 2.4 million Sacajawea coins overboard. Or you could buy 231,660 copies of the paperback.
Lots you could do with the money.
James Irsay, the self-described "steward" of the Ti-Jean Ker(tripthong)c's scroll, is the owner of the Indianapolis Colts. A guy who also pays a whole lot for his stewardship of Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, and Edgerrin James. A guy willing to shell out a whole lot more for the manuscript. A relative of the guy who snuck the Colts to Indianapolis while Baltimore slept. Baltimore, in turn, responded by doing something unthinkable: they named their NFL replacement franchise after Poe's The Raven, making it the only professional sports team with a literary name. We can only expect to see Lowell, Massachusetts' single-A baseball franchise change its name from the Spinners to the Subterraneans -- or perhaps Kerouac's hometown American Hockey League team, the Lockmonsters, can be persuaded to go for something a little less terrifying, perhaps Desolation Angels.
Getting back to James Irsay, the proud owner of the scroll. What he had to say was this --
"I don't believe you own anything in this world. It's a great thing, and for Jack, wherever his spiritual vibes are floating around, he can feel good about it ... I was willing to spend a lot more."
Several Unanswered Questions of the 'Why' Type
Why willing to spend a lot more?
Why spend $700,000 more than they did for Celine's handwritten "Journey to the End of the Night?" $2.4 million for a so-called scroll that's (1) dog-chewed, (2) nearly translucent from five decades of no-so-beatific grimy fingers, (3) totally frayed along the edges, (4) covered in crayon with whole passages crossed-out, (5) single-spaced, (6) all one paragraph, and (7) stained with Kerouac's coffee- and-benzedrine addled sweat?
Why spend the cash on this scroll instead of doing a good-intentioned but ultimately not very nice thing with 2.4 million coins embossed with that Indian trailblazer chick?
Because some angelheaded Canuck sat in his mother's Long Island kitchen, in his shirtsleeves, and worked at it from April 2, 1951, to April 22, 1951? Then refused to edit it for publication for six years, and during this time he drank a lot, and this drinking sent him down the road toward his death?
Because 100,000 dope-smoking teens are buying it this year, just as you were buying it and smoking dope in a previous decade?
And what about those spiritual vibes?
Brief Descriptions of a Few Well-Known Manuscripts of the 'Modernist' Type
A few things to consider --
Famous manuscripts are typically handwritten.
Each page sometimes consists of an accretion of actual cutting and pasting.
Certain pages of Proust's In Search of Lost Time are, apparently, several inches thick.
Joyce's Ulysses is marked in different colored ink, cues to thematic threads throughout the book.
And, of course, Kerouac's typewritten scroll, which looks like a relic for a simple reason: because it is one.
These examples are markedly different than the green-spined Penguin Classics we've dog-earred and covered in our own underlinings and marginalia.
A page that's several inches thick is soulful -- more so than David Foster Wallace's remark that he was somewhat embarrassed when he sent the manuscript of Infinite Jest to his publisher in two large typing-paper boxes.
Each of Proust's manuscript pages are as thick as one of DFW's boxes.
This soulfulness is like modernist steam rising from hardboiled ideas of authenticity and uniqueness; something that cannot be reproduced and bound and widely distributed and made available to stoned kids for $10.36 in paperback, or infinitely reproduced and electronically distributed to all the world's palmtops.
Hence, $2.4 million for Kerouac's scroll at auction.
Moral #1: Modernist things sell well.
In Which We Think About Kerouac Using Microsoft Word, & Ask -- & Almost Answer -- A Question of the 'What If' Type
This next statement is a matter of course: I'm typing this "all in a rush" on a computer. I copy and paste and delete errant phrases into oblivion. I don't need to describe this process of composing since you're reading this online. I know you're in front of a computer monitor of some sort. I know you know Word. You know the process. No need to cut a dead cat in half.
But what if Kerouac (or Joyce or Proust or Anybody from the predigital days) were writing today?
Kerouac employed teletype paper so he could write the thing he wanted to write without pausing to change sheaves. Mama Necessity birthed this $2.4 million object, but the endless vertical space on the screen you're looking at right now has given her a hysterectomy.
Typing on even the most outdated computer, Jack could have written for three straight weeks, only pausing to the drain the perculator, pop the pills, and press the "save" icon.
No dog would have eaten his file.
Anna Kournikova, his only enemy
The Predigital, Modernist Manuscript
The .DOC File
A few questions to consider --
How much would David Foster Wallace's floppy of Infinite Jest fetch at auction?
What makes art or an object valuable?
OK. Let's determine InfiniteJest.doc's uniqueness and functionality.
Not unique: InfiniteJest.doc is infinitely reproducible. It can be attached to a message and spammed to thousands of e-mail addresses so that each recipient opens an exact replica of the file sent from firstname.lastname@example.org (this is not his real e-mail address; if you know his real e-mail address please let us know. We will buy you something if it's real.)
Poor function: Who the hell wants to scroll through 1000+ pages of manuscript (plus footnotes) using a mouse and reading on a monitor? Fuck that, says I.
However: An object -- for example, Jimi Hendrix' guitar -- would be unique and have function (it could be played; the tone might be the least bit Hendrixian), and it would be valuable. Kerouac's scroll is unique, and its uniqueness means it will go on a U.S. tour (I'm not gonna write "on the road") in 2007. In terms of function, of course, the scroll can be read, but it's more like a painting or an artifact of a by-gone world.
Sorry InfiniteJest.doc: you will never go on tour.
Technical specifications: When DFW saved InfiniteJest.doc to his hard drive or a floppy, it always stored differently since the computer seeks, each time, to rearrange all data for maximum storage efficiency. The only time the "original" could remain "original" would be if, immediately after typing "the end," the computer was shut down and never used again, or the floppy never accessed.
Technically, the file on the hard drive or floppy is useless and valueless -- it's a set of commands for a series of on/off electrical impulses to switches on the motherboard; this doesn't even include the set of on/off commands/impulses unrelated to the file that help the mouse move or the keyboard type or the monitor light up.
Are these commands "works of art" like Kerouac's scroll or Van Gogh's preliminary sketches for Starry Night?
Probably not. Or maybe so. But only in flaky, incomparable ways.
A Semi-Logical Conclusion About All of This, Without Relying on Words Like 'Postmodern' or Any of Its Equivalents, Abbreviations, Etc.
Things that are being created right now will be auctioned in the future. But these things of auctionable value probably won't be digital manuscripts. The files that eventually lead to massive annual paperback sales will be neither unique nor particularly functional. In fact, wouldn't it sort of suck to pay a few million for the original InfiniteJest.doc file saved for the last time sometime in 1996?
But auction houses will need to make money, and new books lacking easily commodifiable origins will appear.
Further, future generations of teenage stoners will cut their literary teeth on these required books, whether their origins are auctionable or not
(I realize this last statement puts a lot of trust in literature. Realistically, it will be a movie, or a comic book, or a video game, or a combination of all these things that can also get you stoned and suck you off.)
And even further, future NFL franchise owners will want to buy something -- so what will we put on the block?
The computer. The keyboard. The monitor.
And when the proud owner plugs the thing in, it will be unique and functional. It will be a storehouse of supplementary files: letters, e-mails, various drafts of that required novel and lesser stories, fragments, unpublished writings, digital images, saved web pages, .mp3s, not to mention the history of web pages visited during the computer's last months of action, out-of-rotation banner ads stored in the cache.
There's value there, I think:
As object fetishisizer. ("Oh my God, I'm typing on the same computer Othella De La Chen typed on!). [See James Isray's comment about the manuscript and Jack's spiritual vibes.]
As literary estate storehouser. ("Oh man, here's the preliminary notes for The Pleached & Pungled Pothery of Pyrectic Punkins! Oh man, here's Othella's correspondence with some guy named Throop!)
As voyeurist enabler. (Oh my God, I can't believe he/she checked out so much porn!")
As research potentiate. ("According to calculations from our cache analyses, Othella De La Chen spent approximately five hours a day surfing porn sites while writing PPPPP! Can you believe it!?! A critical reinterpretation of his/her work in light of this voracious appreciation for images involving octogenarian bantus, well-hung dwarves, and shorn-to-skin llamas certainly seems to be in order.")
Unlike a typewriter. Unlike typed or handwritten pages. But a relic as well.
Moral #2: Save everything. The future owner of the NFL's Seattle Starbucks may pay a lot for it.
B R A V E S O U L S R E C E I V E
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