Wednesday, May 13, 2015

On Trash

I realized something today as I rode the Max into downtown, my eyes for once fixed at a level rather than cast downward. I began noticing details I hadn't before, which usually happens. I had always assumed it was depression and anxiety that made me look at the world this way, but giving it some thought I realized that depression can't be the only reason I am more familiar with what's under foot than what's at eye level. Rather, what lies at the heart of much of my gazing at the ground is the fact that I'm fascinated by trash.

It's certainly shown up in my writing. In one book in particular- my unpublished novel "One Could Do Better"- the protagonist finds a scrap of paper on the streets of London with the titular phrase and, intent of making it mean something, turns his life on a dizzying tangent. That story is so true to my nature it hurts.

I remember once, as a child, when I would go up to visit my grandparents' lake house in Santee, South Carolina, there was an old mid-century garbage dump out in the woods that my father and I would explore. Mostly, we found interesting old bottles. Some were well-known, like the famous 10-2-4 Dr. Pepper bottles my father remembered from his childhood; others were bottles from long-defunct and forgotten soda companies, with names like Parnell's, Shivar, and Virginia Dare. Once, I even managed to find the bullet nose from the grill of a '49 Ford, a prize I still have among the huge amounts of things I've collected over the years.

It was all trash- at least in its own time it was- but by my time these were objects with value. I could easily turn around and sell the once-worthless chrome from that old Ford for maybe $100 or so, to some collector who would proudly display it in their man cave along with original signs from Route 66 and old Texaco gas pumps.

Trash, you see, is two things: it is temporal and it is subjective, and these qualities are interwoven. With time, the subjective value of trash increases, and trash becomes ennobled to the status of an antique, a collectible, or even- given enough time or the right circumstances- an artifact of a lost civilization, preserved behind glass thick enough to stop a bullet and kept in a climate-controlled environment. Objects, people, and ideas are only trash when nobody wants them; their essence, their essential defining traits, are unchanged, and their apotheosis from trash to treasure is purely metaphysical.

The Rosetta Stone- which I was fortunate enough to see in London in the 2000s- was nothing more than Ptolemaic trash that, given time, became ennobled to the status of an irreplaceable artifact. The medieval manuscripts I have worked with- which I deem to be a great privilege- were once trash made obsolete by the invention of movable print, the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution (need I continue?) and the ones that weren't destroyed or discarded were forgotten and ignored until the last 150 years or so.

Stranger still is the way that those who work with trash become ennobled proportionally to the trash they work with. We esteem the scholar, the archaeologist, and the treasure hunter who search through yesteryear's garbage far above the dumpster diver, who searches through yesterday's garbage; the only difference between them, fundamentally speaking, is the number and type of people who are willing to invest in them a modicum of value.

When people become trash, they often pass away before their value can be unearthed, and the more alienated from each other we become, the more trash we generate as those we deem useless are thrown to the wayside. Like the mounds of good metal and paper we dump into landfills, we seem to generate such a surplus of human trash in this day and age that human life becomes cheap as the individual becomes expendable in relation to the whole machinery of production and consumption. The value of the individual- immutable and inviolable in our idealized presumption- meets with the same reality as lifeless things when faced with the brunt of industrial society's march toward the goal of producing for production's sake. Where men are regarded only as glorified machines, their worth is always measured in units of production. But on the whole the attitude toward them is apathy, or else ignorance, much as it is for the trash from last Saturday's picnic in the park. The world is full of broken bottles, crumpled cups, and crushed cans that can tell the sad story of exactly how and why they became trash.

But when ideas become trash, it becomes a tremendous anathema to unearth them, examine them, try to glean any morsel of truth from philosophies discarded wholesale without a thought to the value of their parts. The act of sorting through physical trash in and of itself is seldom a crime more serious than a misdemeanor, but the act of sorting through the trash of philosophers and thinkers whose ideas are out of fashion is often an unforgivable trespass for which the philosophical dumpster diver pays with their reputation and, in more extreme cases, their life. It is only when an idea is forgotten long enough for its merit to be considered in objective terms that the philosophical dumpster diver becomes an ennobled character, the scholar and exponent of a revival of old modes of thinking as if those ideas were, in fact, their own.


So it is that I walk with my eyes cast downward, forever scanning for that scrap of paper, lost trinket, detritus of the last century, and ideas overlooked by the present cultural milieu. I'm forever scanning for that piece of paper that, with a few simple words, will turn my life on some exciting, dangerous tangent that no one ever thought of, because no one considered it anything but trash until I came along.

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