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On Discard

Published 9th March, 2020 in MRP Guest Blogger
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In Scottish author Muriel Spark’s Harper and Wilton (1953) the protagonist is approached by two Edwardian suffragettes: 

The front-door bell was ringing, now. I was not at all sure I should answer it. There was no reason to expect visitors and I had been assured by the Lowthers of my complete solitude. But I opened the garden room window, smitten with nerves, and called out.

“Who is it you want? I’m afraid the Lowthers are away. I’m only a temporary tenant.”

“We want you,” said the woman who seemed to be the younger of the two.

I was still almost sure I had seen them before. They gave me the creeps. The older woman pressed the bell again. “Let us in.”

“Who are you?” I said.

“Harper and Wilton,” said the younger one. “Don’t panic. We are merely outraged.”

Harper and Wilton —where had I heard their names before?

“Do I know you?” I said.

“Do you know us?” said one of the women, the taller. “You made us. My name is Marion Harper known as Harper and my friend is Marion Wilton known as Wilton. We fight for the Vote for Women.”

Oh God, I remembered then that years ago, many, many years ago, some time in the 1950s, I wrote a story about two Edwardian suffragettes. What could I recall of that story? It was never published. Was it finished? I didn’t find the two characters, Harper and Wilton, very sympathetic but I had certainly had some fun with them.

“What do you want from me?” I inquired from the window. I had no intention of letting them into my house. 

“You cast the story away,” said little Wilton. “We’ve been looking for you for some time. Now you’ve got to give us substance otherwise we’ll haunt you.” (245-6)

The author narrator drives off to her home, retrieves her abandoned manuscript, and seeks to resolve/repurpose the story. 

I empathise uniquely with the narrator of Harper and Wilton. I’ve often repurposed my abandoned creations. Paige & Powe was formerly a print novella. Likewise, my Little Emperor Syndrome was initially shortlisted for the T.A.G. Hungerford Award as a ‘traditional’ print work. My latest digital offering, the data-driven, 3D-printed The Data Souls similarly rebirthed some of my print short stories.

In the material world, we are encouraged to recycle because waste has significant impact on the natural environment. I assert that we should also recycle the words we use/say/publish. With the infinite avenues for dissemination, with a collective polyphony that is increasingly discordant and indecipherable (and that’s not including the vast bodies of unread words: the oceans of slush pile rejections, the googols of unsent emails/text messages/manuscript drafts, as well as the unread non-human programming languages that determine so much contemporary existence), one often feels unwilling to present anything to the already cluttered literary altar.

No one reuses discarded material better than British installation artist Cornelia Parker. Her War Room (2015), a response to the commemorations of World War I, was inspired by a visit to a factory in Richmond, London that produced red paper commemorative poppies. Parker collected the perforated paper that was to be discarded: vast red sheets full of poppy-shaped holes. Using this paper, what Parker calls ‘very charged material’, she produced an artwork reminiscent of the sumptuous tent Henry VIII took to France to overawe the French King.

What, then, is the literary equivalent of Parker’s War Room? A work created from discarded words. Take, for example, the original, discarded ending to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (1861):

It was four years more, before I saw herself. I had heard of her as leading a most unhappy life, and as being separated from her husband who had used her with great cruelty, and who had become quite renowned as a compound of pride, brutality, and meanness.

I had heard of the death of her husband (from an accident consequent on ill-treating a horse), and of her being married again to a Shropshire doctor, who, against his interest, had once very manfully interposed, on an occasion when he was in professional attendance on Mr. Drummle, and had witnessed some outrageous treatment of her. I had heard that the Shropshire doctor was not rich, and that they lived on her own personal fortune.

I was in England again — in London, and walking along Piccadilly with little Pip — when a servant came running after me to ask would I step back to a lady in a carriage who wished to speak to me. It was a little pony carriage, which the lady was driving; and the lady and I looked sadly enough on one another.

“I am greatly changed, I know; but I thought you would like to shake hands with Estella, too, Pip. Lift up that pretty child and let me kiss it!” (She supposed the child, I think, to be my child.)

I was very glad afterwards to have had the interview; for, in her face and in her voice, and in her touch, she gave me the assurance, that suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham’s teaching, and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be. 

We could take these neglected words, pump them into a Javascript poetry generator, give a human-edit flourish, and produce a poem on the current state of British politics:

Enough

A rich voice interposed

a supposed assurance

of pride and brutality

from a death pony carriage.

The consequent occasion

wished glad suffering on her

own fortune, on a servant

London, on one another.

Outrageous, professional

hands separated the quite

personal heart of a once

again unhappy England.

Or perhaps I should be recycling closer to home. Reusing more local, discarded words. Perhaps Margaret River Press’s request for submissions for their now-passed 2019 Short Story Competition. Using this vocabulary, we could again make use of a Javascript poetry generator, and produce a poem that supplies advice to the aspiring writer:

Guidelines for a Writer

In the general CONDITIONS of Facebook promotion 

your format has no eligibility.

There are no requirements for your acknowledgement. 

There is no accommodation for you in our TIMELINE.

NOTE: 3000 writers elsewhere are also submitting,

so please do not be compelled to undertake any typed pages.

Or perhaps I should start with myself, with my first blog post, published on-line last week, March 2, 2020. The vocabulary from my discussion on precision could be reimagined as follows:

The Benthic Sentence

The Scottish encyclopaedia conjures a paragraph that refuses reality: an infinite form listening between a locust with ethical specialisation in its antennae and the visual word, which digresses taxonomically to early scavengers with one nose pursing the sentence that would never be the white crystal crème de la crème of English, but merely the precise, tragic advertising of waterfalls previously in the metaphors of lobster claws: a festival of the nearer decline of speech linked to the eyes of Vladimir Nabokov, who was plainly on the spectrum of difficulties assigned by a Georgian psychologist who had little reputation or care for Cornelia Parker’s later installation artwork idleness or a golden gourmet magazine that questions the emblem of the ordinary author who has a corrupt, coiled childhood and stalked the old, characterized class, who is just a borrowed Jean Brodie linguist and is not listening at all to the recorded, pincerish description of Russian lilies assigned between matter and the limitations of a naturalist, melted, stupid future.

‘Reduce, reuse, recycle.’ This term is often attributed to Gaylord Nelson, a Wisconsin U.S. Senator who adopted the slogan in the 1970s. I’m not sure which individual actually came up with this particular configuration, but if we just recombine the words from elsewhere there’s really no need for citations. Indeed, we could do this with any text, just as John Cayley and Daniel Howe did with their ‘exhaustively annotated’ How It Is in Common Tongues (2012), which reassembles Irish writer Samuel Beckett’s How It Is (1961) by using search engines to find the longest common phrases from Beckett’s prose and citing portions with URLs. It’s something of a middle finger to the preposterous ownership laws that protect the estates of dead authors, but it also reminds us that all words are neglected, from which all great works can be (re)constructed. 

We are all just literary sailors on a sea of garbage words trying to orient ourselves. That sounds like something Beckett may have said, but I don’t have it in me to scan the entire S.B. corpus, so for now I’ll just claim that line as my own.


Read David’s blog post from last week, ‘On Precision,’ here.


David Thomas Henry Wright won the 2018 Queensland Literary Awards’ QUT Digital Literature Prize and Honourable Mention for the 2019 Robert Coover Award for a work of Electronic Literature. He has been shortlisted for several other national and international literary prizes, and published in various academic and creative journals. He has a PhD (English and Comparative Literature) from Murdoch University and a Masters (Creative Writing) from The University of Edinburgh, and taught Creative Writing at China’s top university, Tsinghua. He is currently co-editor of The Digital Review and Associate Professor (Comparative Literature) at Nagoya University. 


Works cited:

Cayley, J. & Howe, D.C. (2012) ‘How It Is in Common Tongues’, The Readers Project. Accessed at https://thereadersproject.org/hiiict2012.html

Dickens, C. (2007) ‘The Original Ending Great Expectations as first published in John Forster’s Life of Charles Dickens’, Victorian Web. Accessed at http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/ge/ending.html

Margaret River Press (2018) ‘Margaret River Short Story Competition 2019 now open for submissions’. Accessed at https://margaretriverpress.com/2018/06/18/short-story-comp-2019-open/

“Reduce, reuse, recycle.”—???

Spark, M. (2011) Muriel Spark: The Complete Short Stories, Edinburgh: Canongate Books.

Wright, D.T.H. (2020) ‘On Precision’, Margaret River Press Blog. Accessed at https://margaretriverpress.com/2020/03/02/on-precision/

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