In praise of the collecting act

In praise of the collecting act – includes essay on translating Yomota Inuhiko

Inuhiko Yomota

YOMOTA INUHIKO, WHO WAS BORN IN 1953, is one of the most versatile and prolific critics in Japan today. Beginning with Eizo no Shokan (“Invitation of Screen Images”), a collection of essays on cinematography published in 1983, Yomota has brought out two dozen books, ten of them in 1993 and 1994 alone. Among the more recent titles are Me no Haretsu (“Explosion of the Eye”), a book of poems; Den’ei Fuun (“The Movie amid a Storm”), an 800-page tome on films in Korea, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, and North Korea; and Manga Genron (“Principles of Comics”), a survey of Japanese comics from semiotic and other viewpoints. For Tsukishima Monogatari (“Tsukishima Story”), he won the first Saito Ryoku’u prize, in 1993.

A dedicated translator of Paul Bowles and professor of film and “images” at Meiji Gakuin University, Yomota has also taught in Seoul and New York. From 1994 to 1995, he was a scholar-student at the University of Bologna.

Except for his erudition and an astonishingly wide range of references, Yomota’s writings are easy to translate. Indeed, an extended essay translated here, Shushu Koi Raisan (“In Praise of the Collecting Act”), may be perfect for a translation contest; it is the sort of writing that can be recast into English faithfully — without stylistic worries, with ease. For contrast, I might mention Nakagami Kenji (1946-1992), whose story, Juryoku no Miyako (“The City of Gravity”), I was asked to translate for Formations. Nakagami’s style is so “dense” that my faithful-to-the-original translation of this story, with Formations having folded before printing the work it had commissioned, has little chance of seeing print.

Yomota is a great admirer of Nakagami and has written two books on him, Kishu to Tensei (“Noble Seed and Transmigration”), I (1987) and II (1994).

1. NO MATTER HOW INNOCENT AND TRIFLING it may seem in retrospect, everyone has a moment in his life when the world felt like an impeccable, happy reality. In my case, such a moment came to visit for the first time half-way through my twelfth year: I succeeded in collecting all the definitive stamps carrying a portrait of Hitler issued by Nazi Germany during the Second World War. In other words, I assembled a complete set — from the Braille one-pfennig to the large intaglio five-mark. I can still remember vividly the sensation when I obtained the last one needed. With the stern expressions of the Fuhrer in the twenty-two stamps tinted in scarlet, indigo, and greenish gray in front of me, I almost jumped up. Of course, to the twelve-year-old child, the tragic meaning of the Third Reich was not at all understood. I was too preoccupied with perfecting a universe small as a tide pool.

Collecting stamps — what a childish pleasure! Home from junior high school, I would at once confine myself in my room. On my desk were a Lupe, a perforating ruler, stamp magazines, and a US-made catalog of world stamps which I had bought without knowing how to use it properly. The red two-volume set from the Scott Press contained all the stamps issued in every part of the world, from Aden to Zambezi, chronologically arranged. It was the first foreign-language book I ever bought of my own volition. If you believe in the Abhidharmakosa of Vasubandhu, written in the India of the fifth century, the worlds we inhabit go up in rank whenever a thousand of them gather. The Scott catalog, which almost reached two thousand pages, felt like a cosmic book wrapping all the phenomena of the three thousand worlds.

How do you obtain a single unknown stamp? On an envelope you happen to discover in a drawer of an old dresser or in a moldy wicker suitcase in the storage shack. Through serious diplomatic trade between children. On the letters sent to your father from foreign countries. Or, as happens most frequently in the end, by looking in the stamp dealer’s store. Thus, the collector expands his territory at a snail’s pace. To become an owner of a stamp is to make a microcosmic universe your own and wield absolute power over the people inhabiting there. In placing the twenty-two Hitlers printed in different colors in my album, I witnessed my first sidereal birth.

A stamp is a business card a great nation offers in a children’s room.

A child becomes a Gulliver and tours the countries of the stamps and their peoples.

In a brief essay in One-Way Street, the German critic Walter Benjamin, who was endowed with the qualities of an excellent collector, writes of the pleasures of a stamp collection: In the stamps, everything is small, delicate, and beautiful. And we, with giant’s eyes, peer into the peaceful nation surrounded with perforations.

Shah Pahlavi. Elizabeth II. Ngo Dinh Diem. Leopold III. Lenin and Stalin, shoulder to shoulder. Without knowing their names and their behavior, the kings and dictators on this earth were, like the lavender Lincoln and the green Washington, people close to me since childhood. Appearing on stamps is the measure of their authority. They hold power for now, each in his own universe. Let us look at the stamps of the British colonies, each of which is invariably crowned with the profile of the queen, either on the right or the left edge. The Bahamas, Rhodesia, Hong Kong. Every colonial stamp has a map showing the territory and a picture of its principal product, great waterfalls, smiling natives rowing a canoe, over all of which the queen rules. However, ruler though she may be of an empire whose glories knew no bounds, she can’t help obeying a different order; it is no less than the numeral given on the stamp. The prissy portrait of the queen is no more than a decoration when compared with the denomination clearly written below-say, one shilling sixpence. Within a single, minuscule engravure, any person of power of the world can’t be greater than the terribly low value etched into it.

2. Yousuf Karsh won fame by publishing his photographic portrait of Winston Churchill in Life. His pieces are all large-size, 8 by 10 inches, each choreographed in such a way as to make the subject float up white out of the depth of darkness. Karsh then made it his lifelong passion to collect great facial expressions of the world — of Einstein, Picasso, Hemingway, and so forth. His collection is a group of images of great islands. The old politician of Britain I am looking at is isolated and haughty. He is an immortal being, synonymous with entry into the Eternal Kingdom. After Karsh, the photographic image of Churchill replaced the real Churchill completely.

In 1965, when Churchill closed his long life, a great many nations issued stamps commemorative of him based on Karsh’s photograph. That was because the Churchill in his photograph was infinitely closer to God. However, when the large photograph was condensed into a few square centimeters, and furthermore experienced a media transference to intaglio printing, the inner structure of the image naturally changed. Churchill was liberated from profound darkness. He was apostatized from someone close to God to a temperamental old man confined to a trivially small framework. By ending his life on earth, he became the inhabitant of the narrow plane so familiar to me. The large-size photographic portrait speaks of haughty isolation and the totality of deathlessness. Once it passes through death, however, it scatters away, producing countless tiny fragments like baby spiders. There, a return to the dead original will no longer be in question. The only real being is in millions, tens of millions, of minuscule images that simultaneously rise everywhere in the world — Sharjah, Paraguay, Mali, Dubai, San Marino, and so forth.

3. In The Clepsydra Sanatorium, Bruno Shulz makes a father, who has become captive to the inauspicious desire to be the second Creator, give a long spiel on a mannequin’s weird metaphysics: to be a petty, lower-grade Creator by molding an imitation of life with cheap, shoddy products, ill-formed materials, colored onion-skin paper, paints, and sawdust. What a philatelist tacitly selects is this type of upside-down metaphysic.

4. You peel the stamp off an envelope. It’s work that requires extreme care. If there’s anything comparable, it will be moving a butterfly to a lepidopteran board without destroying its patterns of delicate scales. (How is it that you can only speak about one collecting act in analogy to another?) You immerse a fragment of an envelope in lukewarm water. The glue dissolves, and the stamp slowly floats up. Make a single procedural error, and you end up tearing the stamp for no reason or cutting the paired ones apart. At times the coloring may be water-solvent. Of course, taking the moisture off also requires delicate attention. The faint remnant of the glue on the back of the stamp holds the danger of attaching the stamp to the blotting paper. Through these complicated rituals, a fragment of paper is taken out of its original, practical context, and enters a unique value system.

Touching the stamp directly with your fingers is the most strictly prohibited. No matter how savagely violated the stamp may be with a black cancellation mark, you must use pincers in order not to damage the innocence of its surface. Only after a stern inspection of everything, from the number of perforations within two centimeters to the existence or absence of watermarks, the identity of a stamp is certified. There is no reason whatsoever for neglecting this inspection even for stamps of the same design. A negligible small difference makes two different things out of two stamps. A collector is a faithful student of Aristotle, and the rules of classification are as rigorous as you might imagine. And once you commit yourself to these rules, an extremely abstract pleasure floats up even while you are using objets for your materials: the joy of piling up stones in an imaginary world.

5. Chess, mathematics, stamp collection. There is one thing common to the three. It’s the fact that all of them are essentially children’s territories.

6. The British possession Shanghai. Serbia. Nyasaland. Manchukuo. The nostalgia you feel when the name of a country that has disappeared from the earth is delivered to you on a single stamp is for a utopia, literally “no place.” For me, Portuguese Goa is a country full of gold coins and the saint’s pictures celebrating the 400th anniversary of the death of Francis Xavier, while the sleepy face of a king surrounded with arabesques and the Slavic alphabet is absolutely appropriate for Serbia.

Borges describes somewhere a universe where things go on duplicating themselves through the intervention of human memories. To me, when I was eight, the stone tower resembling a giant penis that frequently appeared in Korean stamps was a puzzle. Years later, when I visited the ancient capital of Silla, I was assaulted by an unexpected sense of deja vu. I realized that I was standing in a place which was exactly the same as the spectacle that had mystified me for so long. It was an ancient observatory of a sort rare in the world. As I stood there, I could not help thinking that this great architecture had been planned and contemplated by the stamps.

7. In collection, only the inside exists.

It is the world’s intimate event clothed in secrecy. An expression mixed with suspicion and hostility that someone indulging in miniature pleasures gives in response to an outsider who turns a curious eye.

At the same time, here, too, what corresponds to Godel’s proof applies. The true act of collecting is something that’s lacking in any motive, any basis. Why collect Chinese stamps of the previous century, labels on match boxes, complicated lures that can’t possibly be practical? No one can explain any such act. But you can say this: that it is a virtue.

8. What is value?

Slight differences — accidental differences, such as the shade of the printing color, the typeface of an added printing, and the curve of the dragon’s right paw — determine the value. A child is surprised to learn that the stamp he happened to acquire is treated as something of extremely high value among a special group of adults. Value is to make nonsense of value. A collector who seeks value will soon run into the baselessness of value.

A currency reduces any qualitative difference to a quantitative size. It puts everything on the same plane and changes everything into an exchangeable entity. All phenomena enjoy democratic equality as they become incorporated into the endless circuit of exchangeable movements.

The collecting act is an infinitesimal perversion of this modern economic system. Things are initially exchanged with a currency but soon become stagnant. Through the reactionary “damming” act, the qualitative values of things are hoarded. The act is the inverse function of a value, an unintended reversion to the “Middle Ages” lived on a personal level.

Beginning the collection, fascinated by irregular-shaped stamps of new countries as florid as butterflies of the South, you come in time to know the existence of solemn values set by catalogues. But in the end the collection veers hugely out of institutionalized values and returns to plain, definitive stamps printed in different colors. Japan’s chrysanthemum stamps after the Meiji era. France’s definitive Ceres stamps. Czechoslovakia’s mail tax stamps designed by Mucha. If the collecting act had a musical scale, it would in time move toward lower notes. Collection transforms itself at an inactive but deep level. In the midst of collection, you find mysterious emotions in a series of monochromatic numerals which, at a glance, don’t seem to have anything attractive about them. Stamps tell you that their plural existence, too, has an aura.

9. The images that unify the world have disappeared. All things have scattered, continuing their deviations from where they ought to be. Only their fragments drift in spaces with differing weight and density, without any order. But there is neither the guaranty that they have overflowed from the whole nor the assurance that they will gather into the whole that is to come. The notion of the whole and its parts itself now faces a crisis. The Indian stamp with a portrait of George VI, of Great Britain, simply with the world “Pakistan” printed on it — to what kind of whole will it revert?

The collector dreams of making all the stamps of the world his, and promptly fails. How can he pursue all those stamps issued every day in every part of the world? The collecting act has no center or periphery. There is only the existence of things in response to occasions. The act sets up a temporary goal. But for what? It is to see the very moment when the goal changes itself into something meaningless. The fragments that drift all over the world multiply endlessly, without any basis, without any center. A child who runs out to a stationer to buy a stamp book for preserving the several low-denomination African stamps he’s happened to get hold of has already a bud of nihilism growing in himself.

10.

They moved around the table, crossed the kitchen, and went into

the children’s room to the right.

This room had two small beds, a cabinet, a fireplace, and

three chairs. Between the two beds was the door to the

kitchencum-dressing room, which you could enter from the front

door as well. Anyone who saw this room for the first time would

be surprised. Without the beds, it would be taken for a closet.

Scattered all over the floor were boxes, underwear, and towels.

Threads were sticking out of the carpet. At the center of the

fireplace was a plaster model, with eyes and a moustache added

to it in ink. Pinned everywhere were clippings from magazines,

newspapers, playbills with photos of movie stars, boxers, and

murderers….

She emptied Paul’s pockets one after another. She threw on

the floor a handkerchief with ink stains, a detonation cap,

lozenge-shaped date cookies with pocket lint stuck to them. Then

she opened a drawer of the cabinet and put away the remainder:

an elephant-shaped small hand, agate marbles, the cap of a

fountain pen.

These were treasures. But they were inexplicable treasures

which had entirely veered from their original purposes and had

symbolic meanings, and to the ordinary eye they were junk: a key

made in England, an aspirin tube, an aluminum ring, hairpins, and

so forth.

Les Enfants Terribles, Jean Cocteau(1)

Les Enfants Terribles is simply a tragedy caused by two alien objects being brought into the orderly universe of treasures that were dear to a boy and a girl: a stage photograph of a naughty child in the disguise of a woman and a Chinese poison. Collection is a superior attribute of infantness. Things that are trivial and soiled, things inexplicable but deeply believed in, and even things that contain unexpected dangers — everything is collected. Pour l’enfant, amoureux de cartes et d’estampes, / L’univers est egal a son vaste appetit, said Baudelaire in L’Invitation au voyage. Therefore, a child who doesn’t steal isn’t a child.

Think of the protagonist of Citizen Kane, the newspaper magnate that Orson Welles played. A wooden sleigh with a design of rose buds given to him in childhood as the trigger, he spends his life in a megalomaniac collecting act. He builds a palace, buys innumerable paintings, sculptures, and antiques from the other shore of the Atlantic Ocean, and breathes his last believing in the moment when the universe becomes perfect in a small glass ball. Here is an unmistakable exposure of childish innocence that has lost its brake. And there is Steven Spielberg, who gleefully outbids everybody to acquire the wooden sleigh used in Citizen Kane for a staggering sum. In E.T., a movie he made, two children hide in their collection of stuffed toys an extraterrestrial being who happens to wander in. An unbroken genealogy of collectors. An old man who finds in antiques a transcendental essence that can’t be understood by anyone else is deeply urged on by the infant within him.

11. What is permitted to a collector is a slight act. He himself never creates. Does not write. Does not paint.

A collector quotes. He pastes what the philatelist calls a “hinge” to a piece of paper, and puts it in his album. He writes in its name. He puts the context in order and welcomes an objet. Such a concept as originality does not have the slightest meaning for the collector. Only the thing and the word that have been collected before his eyes are existence itself.

Ready-made images that endlessly descend toward the side of the ordinary. Fragments of a world that continue to be fragments in their eternal accumulation. Things that were once given for practical use and were then abandoned as valueless. Duchamp who gave the title of “Fountain” to a toilet and brought it into an exhibition hall. Benjamin who filled his worn-out notebooks, even their margins, with scribblings of other people’s aphorisms and quotable remarks and displayed them as if they were treasures. The Beatles who conjure up all the thinkable musical styles and then confine them to pure-white albums. It is no accident that each of their gestures reminds one of the gestures of a stamp collector. Because the hobbies of collecting and quoting are related like twins. Aren’t the thirty-five acrylic portraits of Lady Jacqueline that Warhol did exactly like a sheet of commemorative stamps?

12. It is legitimate to generalize our century as a century of collecting and quoting. From the pleasures in a children’s room, to the collection of bones of soldiers fallen in distant battlefields, to the collection of information. But it is at the same time a century of refugees and concentration camps. The ease of stagnation and the fear of compelled migration. Imagine the agonies of Benjamin who was wrenched from his vast collection of rare books and forced into exile. The golden age when collectors were allowed to exist unawares all their lives is long over. The transparent space that assured people that everything in the world could be equally arranged has been destroyed. Today, collection is a paradoxical act. It is neither a privileged investment nor a hobby with a rich patron behind it. It is, instead, to live the perversion of values at a minimal level.

Criticism and the collecting act. The polemic point in present-day aesthetics is nothing more or less than the point where these two come into contact.

13. “No, the stamp is not metaphor; on the contrary, metaphor is a stamp: the tax, the duty to be paid on natural language and on the voice.”

This is a curious aphorism found in Envois, a selection of Jacques Derrida’s letters to his wife, which makes up the first half of his nearly 500-page book, The Postcard.(2) The letter is dated October 31, 1977 Here too, this philosopher makes free use of extremely abstruse word-play, using timbre, the French for “stamp,” in a multilayered sense. The word timbre means both a postage stamp and the stamping act, the imprinting of the cancellation mark, the certification mark pressed on a stamp to erase its value, thereby subtly hinting a double meaning of the hymen and the loss of virginity. It also means, originally, sound or tone, and I don’t think Derrida’s use of it is unrelated to his main thesis since On Gramatology — the metaphysical suppression of written language by oral language. In another letter dated the same day, he tells his wife of his very suspicious-sounding, megalomaniac dream of writing an encyclopedic book on mail and code in, if possible, code.

Code is an elaborately devised letter and, while existing apart from natural language, can be substituted for it; in this sense, it is a sort of metaphor. No, as may be understood by looking at kennings, it may be that metaphor should be regarded as diluted code, a remnant of a code given to the millions as poetic language. Then, what is a stamp? It is, above all, a reproduced pictorial pattern, the figure of the value attached to it, and a tax an individual must pay to the nation to deliver written language to someone.

14. In 1840, when Roland Hill, a schoolteacher who was looking into tax reform in London, thought up, with the cooperation of a printer in Scotland, the idea of pasting on mail a black, single-penny certificate with a picture profile of Queen Victoria on it, he not only became the originator of the modern mailing system, but also placed himself at the metaphysical contact point of language and gift-giving.

Until the “black penny” was invented, people were able to send their letters free of charge. Those who paid the delivery fees were the recipients of the letters. Those of the richer class unhesitatingly paid their dues in exchange for the letters. But many of the lower classes brazenly did not: they often devised agreed-upon codes, which were written in a corner of the envelope, so that by quickly reading them the receiver could return the letter, without unsealing it, to its deliverer as unneeded. When this happened, the deliverer could not get any income.

The stamp rendered this evil scheme impossible. Instead of the recipient of the letter paying in recompense for it, it made the sender reward the act of delivery. Here, the relationship between ecriture and debt can be said to have been reversed. A sacred public image, a portrait of a queen, was pasted over a cluster of personal sentences written by one person to another and sealed for concealment; it then was imprinted with a cancellation mark that denied it. Can’t we say love of stamps, philately, is love timbre or publicly certified love? Love for something reproduced and canceled — how perverse! The day before writing the quoted sentences, Derrida had written for his wife: “Did not everything between us begin with a reproduction?”

15. Given a chance to make an extremely rare stamp your own, you should, if possible, obtain it in canceled form. Moreover, it is better to be able to see clearly the date and place of cancellation. Best of all is getting hold of it entire — meaning, along with the envelope.

When collection has advanced to a certain point, the childish faith that unused stamps are more valuable than used ones collapses. Stamps that ended up not being sold for one reason or another but a portion of which came on the market through some route. Stamps that were sold only for extremely brief periods of time. Stamps that were sold but, for political or economic reasons, were seldom bought. Stamps of small, remote countries with high illiteracy rates and few post offices issued for collectors in other countries. In such cases, the rarity of actual use can’t be doubted, and clear cancellation marks are preferred also to avoid confusion with counterfeits, of which there are many.

The cancellation mark denies the stamp once. It makes the stamp’s actual value, which is the mail delivery fee, evaporate, and turns the small piece of paper into an objet. The stamp has its image erased once, and then, with the cancellation mark, presents itself once again. It is a sequence of pictograms that float up from under a code of denial.

Why has not a stamp with a portrait of an emperor existed in Japan? From Emperor Meiji’s silver wedding anniversary to the sixtieth anniversary of Hirohito’s enthronement, the emperors have not once appeared on Japanese stamps. This is in great contrast to such countries as Great Britain, Holland, and Thailand, which have used portraits of kings or queens as part of the designs of their definitive stamps. The Japanese are afraid of “the divine shadow” being soiled with cancellation marks. The almost mythical awe that the Japanese have of the imperial “representation” irritates me. Up to a certain time the emperors were revered not in direct photographs but through photographs of portrait paintings of them. Furthermore, for a long time such photographs of their paintings were thought to have the same value as the emperors themselves. The avoidance of certain images transforms them into holy objets. Ironically, while Hirohito was emperor, whenever an international event, most notably a world exposition, was held in Japan, countries such as Paraguay and Liberia issued a variety of stamps unabashedly portraying him. If my memory is correct, in Brazil, I believe, there existed a stamp portraying Hirohito along with the Japanese popular singer Minami Haruo. Here, too, is the “externality” that wildly disturbs the ranking of images.

16. Memory of a single, soiled stamp with imperfect perforation. Where did I get hold of it? Remembrance of the failure to buy a stamp around noon, in winter. Remembrance of peeling stamps off the wrapping paper of a package a friend in a foreign country sent to me. The quiet atmosphere of the clearing house, of a department store’s stamp section . . .

The stamps issued as a series and collected whole form a closed universe self-sufficient on its own. In contrast, stamps belonging to no groups and collected as single entities tempt the collector to stories. To complement an imperfect world, you must resort to the narrative function.

17 or the Interlude. The child was, first of all, not interested in baseball. Or in motorcycles or making dates with girls — in short, he was not concerned about any of the things that absorbed the boys his age. His greatest pleasure was being alone in his room, daydreaming. “Que le monde est grand a la clarte des lampes! / Aux yeux du souvenir que le monde est petit!” — to quote from Baudelaire’s long poem , Le Voyage.

When he was six, his education-loving parents put up a world map on a wall of the children’s room. At once he, in one swoop, memorized the names of all the countries of the world, their capitals, and their chiefs of state. The royal houses of Europe and the names of the kingdoms in small islands in the South Pacific struck his heart. It was when in a small East Asian peninsula, toward the right edge of the map, U.N. forces and Communist forces continued to battle and, on a globe, most of the African Continent consisted of colonies shown in pink and purple.

How could stamp collection not have absorbed him? Just about the time the world map was put up, a grownup in the neighborhood taught him this inexhaustible pleasure. That wasn’t the only thing. In 1953, while beyond the ocean the coronation of Queen Elizabeth was being celebrated in splendor and pomp, the eight-year-old boy celebrated the coronation of an imagined queen of an imagined kingdom that he made up deep in his heart by painting in his own hand a stamp that could not exist on this earth. Thus was born the maker of imagined stamps, Donald Evans.

Duchamp has printed his own photo-portrait on roulette chips and sold them to his friends. The Japanese neo-Dadaist Akasegawa Gempei has made counterfeit 1,000-yen bills and wrapped hammers and scissors with them. And Yves Klein has put stamps painted the vaunted Klein-blue on the invitation cards to his exhibition, canceled them at the post office, and mailed them. But there has been no one like Evans in the world: he continued painstakingly to make stamps of imagined countries throughout his life. In his all-too-brief life he single-mindedly sent out to the world stamps of countries that couldn’t exist; furthermore, he even had a scheme of a world catalogue for them.

Evans’s stamp production is divided into two periods: his boyhood, from six to fifteen, and his adulthood, from twenty-seven to thirty-one.

The stamp production during the early period was carried out parallel to actual stamp collection. He used real stamps as models to dexterously paint his own stamps. The World of Donald Evans, for which Willy Eisenhart wrote a beautiful preface,(3) opens with a collection of twenty-one stamps showing scenes from the Great Islands. This series, which is thought to be from Evans’s very early period, is not sophisticated, to be sure, but adequately reveals a young dreamer’s sincere passion. A two-cent stamp with a leisurely yacht afloat by the shore. A five-cent stamp with a sea tortoise on the shore. A stamp for two shillings and ten cents shows an airplane in the clear sky and is therefore thought to be for airmail. Only the one for one pound is oversized. Probably Evans was vaguely thinking of a British colony somewhere in the Caribbean Sea. A junior high school student at the time, he did not have enough skill to paint the actual queen, so the queen who inhabited his imagined universe existed only in the Great Islands by not being painted.

By age fifteen, Evans had made about a thousand stamps for a total of fifteen countries: Frandia, Doland, Jermend, East Kunstland and West Kunstland, Slobovia, The Western United Powers or WUP…. And the pictures selected for designs were of portraits of his friends, family members, the Mona Lisa, landscapes that can’t exist…. Working part-time for a stamp dealer, he skillfully imitated and incorporated European languages or copied the atmospheres of Arabic and Thai.

But the boy’s secret pleasure had to end for a while as he entered high school. Fascinated by the outside world, Evans abandoned stamp collection and production. At Cornell University, while majoring in architecture, he read Jung and Gurdjieff intensively, kept a diary of dreams, and became interested in mysticism. Later, he would “build” a Gnostic nation reminiscent of ancient heretical Christianity and “issue” a series of definitive stamps centering on rainbows, comets, and other mystic symbols.

In time the twenty-six-year-old architect sold his vast collection of real stamps to his father (!), and left New York to go to Holland alone — the country of hyacinths and windmills which Baudelaire, if I may quote the poet of the Fleurs du mal once again, has described in L’Invitation au voyage as “La, tout n’est qu’ordre et beaute, / Luxe, calme et volupte.” The reason Evans had yearned for Holland for a long time is simple, according to Eisenhart: this stamp-maniac was taken with the very smallness of the country.

In a country where stamp collection is a national hobby, it doesn’t seem to have taken much time before Evans’s enthusiasm for imagined stamps, lying dormant for a while, sprouted again. By 1972, when he moved to Utrecht, then to Amsterdam, he had already made 561 stamps for twenty countries. He is said to have always carried with him a thick address book listing 2,000 friends and acquaintances. No wonder he used many of their names for imagined countries.

Nadorp, a small European country famous for definitive stamps with pictures of Dutch apples and windmills, derives from the name of a real Dutch friend. The thirty “postage due” stamps that Nadorp issued in 1942 in different color shades are terribly simple, with only the denomination numerals given large, probably because of the setting of the Second World War; the direct hint for these, though, was the “postage due” stamps that Holland has continued to issue since the 19th century to the present.

Yteke, named after the woman dancer Yteke Waterbolk whose beauty mesmerized Evans, is a small Scandinavian kingdom which has her as queen. For this queen, Evans produced a total of thirty-six definitive stamps from 1/4 IJ to 10 IJ, all issued in 1873. The stamps of this series, each with a half-length portrait of the queen, are devised so that when they are arranged in rows of six each, seven rainbow colors create beautiful tones across the spaces between them. Evans never introduced wars, calamities, or tragedies into his stamps. From his youth he preferred to paint queens. Other than its queen, Yteke is “famous” for the triangular airmail stamps issued in 1938 — one for 15 IJ with a picture of a swan flying over a cold northern sea and another for 35 IJ with a picture of a swallow circling a giant rock.

Adjudani is a Persian word meaning “Jewish.” When he learned this word from a friend, Evans at once dreamed up a large Islamic nation encompassing the region from Turkey to Tibet. He had never visited Asia but worked out a series of landscape stamps from memories of innumerable images and, acquiring from somewhere old postcards showing Islamic women, produced a commemorative cover so obviously appropriate as a tourist souvenir. Dreamed Oriental beauties — a theme Europe entertained for a long time — are crystallized in ten non-perforated stamps printed in light monochrome. Evans confined the dreams of these pagan women, whom Pierre Loti had described in Aziyade and Rimbaud praised in L’Armee, to most reduced spaces.

The Banana Republics in Latin America that are constantly involved in political fights. The Republic of the Islands of the Deaf, which became independent, in 1954, from the Caludan Empire, the crown of the world — its stamps giving their denominations by the numbers of fingers shown. The Dominion of Pasta, whose capital is Lasagne, issued twenty-five definitive stamps showing macaroni, spaghetti, and so forth. Stein, a country whose name derives from the writer of wordplay whom its creator loved to read, issued stamps with no pictures but packed with writing. Also a great lover of the porcelain and ceramics of the Sung Dynasty, Evans employed Chinese numerals for the stamps of the dynasty called Sungchin.

An art dealer in Amsterdam showed an interest in Evans and paid five dollars for each postcard carrying his stamp. But Evans was desperately poor, and was forced to move often, making rounds of cheap apartments and friends’ houses. Not outgoing by nature, he began to suffer from melancholia in his late twenties, which was made worse by chronic pneumonia. From Amsterdam to New York, back to Amsterdam. While not in hospital, he haunted flea markets to buy old postcards and other collectibles and, alone in his room, worked out the topographies and histories of his imaginary countries. He made only one of each of his stamps, each a part of a complete series. He even devised a catalogue in three languages. In his head the world was always small and perfect, and it had to be full of peace and childlike grief.

When he died at age thirty-one in a fire in Amsterdam, he left 4,000 stamps from a total of forty-two countries. He had crystallized his dream of the smallest utopia in the world.

[End of the Interlude]

18. Why do old stamps fascinate you? At a certain stage of stamp collection, you lose interest in the stamps of socialist countries in East Europe and Arab sheikdoms that compete with one another in florid colors and designs, and turn to stamps of the previous century, such as plain “postage due” stamps which, with nothing but cancellation marks, don’t seem worth anything at a glance, and definitive stamps with portraits of royalties with only their colors differentiated.

The landscapes of unknown foreign countries and the portraits of a class that died out in the past generate enthusiasm in the collector by their distance. Here is the most typical form in which nostalgia sanctifies things. The sense of distance guarantees reality for everything. What exists close is boring, what exists in the distance rare, full of charm. At the base of nostalgia lies Nietzsche’s “love of distant people.”

19. What is nostalgia?

A thought of one’s home town that has become far away. A remorseful and wishful memory involving the beginnings of things. A sentimental yearning for a certain age of the past.

In Japan today the word nosutarujia has become so much a part of daily usage that a department store has used it in its ads. Originally, however, it was a medical term used by clinicians in a very limited sense. It is said to have been used for the first time in 1698 by the Swiss physician Johannes Hofer in a medical treatise he published in Basel. According to Karl Jasper’s description in his Nostalgia and Crime, Hofer gives the following examples as symptoms of nostalgia.

A student from Bern once suffered from a high fever and blabbered delirious lies. The people around him predicted his death, but a certain doctor looked at his symptoms and judged that the only cure was for him to return to his home town. When he learned this, the student recovered in no time, became healthy, and went back to Bern.

Another example has to do with a girl who was brought to a hospital with an illness. She did not respond to any question, merely stubbornly expressing her desire to go home. When she was allowed home, she recovered completely within several days, without using any medicine.

Reviewing these cases, Hofer gave the term “nostalgia” to a series of separation complexes and resultant physical ailments, to which till then had been given such vague expressions as le mal du pays and regret. This neologism uses the Greek words [One unconvertible Greek Word] which means “return home,” and [One unconvertible Greek word] which means “pain.” Soon the Basel physician’s proposal was accepted by the medical world, and the word nostalgia took root as a term describing the physical decline, insomnia, anxiety, or the sense of oppression that often assaults those who are living far away from their homes or home towns. Interestingly enough, however, at the beginning this ailment was regarded as peculiar to the Swiss climate with the clarity of its air and its low atmospheric pressure, and it took some time before it was argued that it was in fact a psychological phenomenon universal among all human beings. This came about when it was discovered that many of the army deserters in European countries and immigrants to the New Continent showed symptoms similar to those of the Swiss.

The contribution made by Kant to the concept of nostalgia is extremely great. In On Man, published in 1798, he gave the incisive view that the symptoms of nostalgia do not derive from a simple spatial distance but rather from the patient’s thoughts of a comfortable and enjoyable space that exists within his memory. In a paper published in 1984, Ikushi Soeya has argued that Kant’s view meant “the transition from spatial nostalgia to temporal nostalgia and the establishment of the concept of Romantic nostalgia.” The lost home town where horns echo and the barren reality where everything is in decline. Such thoughts prepared the heightening of Romanticism, on the one hand, and, on the other, provided a greenhouse for patriotism, as is well-known in the history of political thought. The rapid changes in European society as a result of the industrial revolution cut farmers off from the land and traditional life and transformed them into anonymous city workers. To borrow Levi-Strauss’s expressions, a large-scale change was made from a “cold society” to a “hot society.” It is not hard to imagine that sudden migrations of people and environmental changes fattened up nostalgic sentiments to unprecedented size.

20. By the time the nineteenth century came to a close, “nostalgia” as a clinical term had mostly ceased to be used. Jaspers’ treatise on criminal psychology that I mentioned earlier was, I think, among the last to do so. In its place appeared the term “regression,” which is one of the basic ideas of Freudian psychology that newly came into being. You do not desire a return to the environment where you were brought up or a bucolic golden age, but desire a return to an age when the distinction between your mother and your own self was not yet clear and the whole world of the unconscious was filled with an amorphous identity. When you have passed such Freudian theories, the work of questioning nostalgia takes on an extremely ontological coloration. This demands a fundamental act in which the thinking subject questions the origin of thinking and then questions the concept of origin itself.

21. The intense desire to return to the origin, to be in the very spot where things were about to begin. The firm will to deny the desolation and corruption of the present and to yield oneself to the past when sincerity and beauty must have reigned. When you are in the midst of such nostalgia, you change into an excellently ideological being.

The things that exist before your eyes have only trivial worth now. Everything has scattered and is about to face a tragic end in every corner of the world. The law of reason that governs your existence has disappeared, and the string that ties a symbol to the content of its meaning has been broken. What feebly crosses the space before us is only a plethora of membranes of the world that have lost their original places and are drifting aimlessly. Stupidity, errors, evil, cupidity, and remorse and boredom. Our unhappinesses that Baudelaire, of Fleurs du Mal, enumerated in the previous century may increase but will never leave us. And, in the circumstances, you idealize a certain time in the past and become deeply fascinated by the distance, the separation, the gap, between the lost world and the present.

Just as an infinitesimal slice of madeleine dipped in tea becomes, for the narrator of Proust’s long novel, a great trigger for remembering the past, and just as the old man in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, Sacrifice, upon unexpectedly discovering in his own garden a miniature model of his house that a child has made, begins to have a deep pessimism about the collapse of European civilization through a nuclear war, someone who is captivated by nostalgia draws to himself vast losses and gaps with a very trifling thing as the trigger. No, I should perhaps correct myself and say, because of an infinitesimal miniature. In an extremely small object remnants of the world breathe that once boasted innocence and perfection. A trifling toy that you had lost sight of in childhood or a worthless trophy of some prank recovers reality and glory to your world and gives you the trigger for liberating yourself from errors and remorse. The glass ball and the mysterious last word, “Rosebud,” in Citizen Kane, that I analyzed earlier, admirably depict the kinetics of these things.

Nostalgia starts a story. Its subject is the past that no longer exists here, the time you can no longer talk about except indirectly. A thing maintains its reality only in its origin. The essence of existence does not exist in the changes of movement but is lodged entirely in its transcendental beginnings. In contrast to the thought of utopia which projects its idea into the temporal future, nostalgia makes the same attempt for the past. But, in the end, these two resemble each other like two images in two facing mirrors in that both start a happy story that is non-existent at the present time. Christianity, in preaching the coming of a new Jerusalem, is at the same time deeply fascinated by a return to the Garden of Eden before original sin, and Marxism, in advertising a Communist society to come, adopts, as a measure for blaming Capitalism as it is, a separation from the primitive communal society thought to have existed at the beginning. From the search for the roots of a family or a political restoration movement, passion for the original has been employed at every opportunity and, by selecting the form of story, has fascinated and mobilized people.

In the present mass consumer society that will soon enter the 21st century, indeed, every piece of merchandise is so organized as to carry a tone of nostalgia in some way. Aside from a series of statements which politically insist on reaction and return, retroactive tendencies penetrate every corner of our life and never cease to speak to us, so that we may taste a return to a lost idealistic time as a pseudo-experience. Nostalgia, which was explained as a climatic disease in Switzerland in the 17th century, has been transformed, three centuries later, into a principle that supports the merchandise economy of highly advanced capitalist society. Disneyland, the 1920s Boom, and “60th Graffiti” all preach that progress has been an illusion, and allow us to return to our comfortable childhood. Through such devices we remember our own lives as though we were on sight-seeing tours. And so, today, even the act of remembrance, which in Proust’s age was considered a secret unrecompensed joy for an individual, has come to be tacitly controlled, organized, and regarded as the equivalent, in value, of the act of consuming a product. We have sold and disposed of not only the present but also the distance from the past. But, at the same time, this is to say that ours is an age when nostalgia is exposed to greatest danger and faced with greatest difficulties. Where is the glass ball that the old newspaper magnate of Citizen Kane held in his hand until just before his death?

22. Fascism used to appeal to nostalgia: Deny the present in which the pure blood of a race is soiled, and restore the land, the meaning, and the origin. The Japanese schemed to see the origin of their nation 2,600 years ago, and Nazi Germany advertised the blond-haired beast as the ancestor of the Aryan race. Today, the designs of Fascism themselves become the subject of nostalgia — become, as typical examples of kitsch, the subject of privileged quotation by Hell’s Angels and in pornographic movies.

Collection totally unrelated to nostalgia exists. This happens when death intervenes directly.

The belongings of the passengers of the Korean Air Lines jet shot down by a Soviet fighter in 1984. The trophies left after a tribal battle is ended. The spectacles, false teeth, artificial legs, and so forth, of Jews that are piled high in Nazi Germany’s concentration camps. Revealed here is the most grotesque, the most sinister will to collect. Here, there is absolutely none of the longing for a past adorned with ideals or the throbbing of the heart for an unknown foreign land. All the work is done for the present. For what purpose did the commanders of Dachau and Auschwitz become so passionate about such an inauspicious manual task? When you think of it, perhaps it was not a desire for a return to the past but a desire to make themselves, as soon as they could, a past full of glory. Power always loves immovable things — this law becomes a truth here as well.

Translated by Hiroaki Sato

(1) Translated from the Japanese translation. (2) Tr. Alan Bass, The University of Chicago Press, 1987. (3) Harlin Quist Books, 1980. I am greatly indebted to Eisenhart’s preface for my descriptions here.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Fairleigh Dickinson University

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