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The Catalogue by Norman Lock



Dr. Landis threw up his hands and wept. He did so in the honorable way of a man who has come to the end of his strength. Africa had frustrated his attempts to classify its parts. We did not fault him, but his despair sent a shiver through us. He had arrived from the Smithsonian with sufficient enthusiasm, tags, and string to label everything--or so he thought. But the final days of our journey as we approached the limits of our experience had confounded his and all science. He was not the first to delude himself that Africa is manageable. One by one we had failed and accepted our failure.

We picked him up from where he lay, gnashing his teeth in the dust, and carried him into the tent. The heated canvas smelled like a musty attic. The light seeping through the tent-flap looked like the yellowing pages of an old book. The insects under the floorboards creaked like a rusty gate. We took comfort in similes--by God we did! Each was a cosmology, each a map of the unknown. In our place you would feel the same--so far from home and lost to all that is familiar. But the trouble with Africa is that ultimately it destroys similes. Their referents vanish in the impenetrable underbrush. Only occasionally are we permitted (“vouchsafed,” the Bishop used to say) a fleeting glimpse of them through the thorn bushes, under the leaves, trembling at the bottom of some great ravine. But a glimpse is all, and soon Africa closes its hand.

I held the papier-mâché curiosity that had undone Dr. Landis and came to a decision.

I sent for Dewey, whose Decimal System had organized the world of knowledge.

He did not come willingly.

My emissaries had to apply force at several strategic points. He yelped. I was remorseful. But it was necessary.

He stood in the clearing, rubbing his eyes in disbelief. His hair needed brushing. His shoes were untied and ridiculously inappropriate for the wilderness. He had not had time to put on a collar. His fingers were covered with tiny decimals and letters of the alphabet. I gave him my tent, my delicate blue willow washbowl. He washed his inky fingers. I lent him a brush, a collar, some sensible shoes, and a broad-brimmed hat to keep off the sun.

He was mollified, but only just.

“Why have you brought me here?” he demanded in a dry voice that threatened to crack.

“We need help with the cataloguing,” I said. “Our explorations have come to a standstill because of this”--I showed him the curiosity—“and other unclassifiable phenomena. What is needed, Melvil -- may I call you Melvil?”

He indicated that I mightn't.

“What is urgently required, Mr. Dewey, is a system!”

My colleagues applauded. All two hundred porters dropped their burdens and began a weeklong celebration in my honor. I blushed with pleasure.

“But this is not a library!” shouted Dewey.

“There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your library,” I retorted--to great effect, I thought.

My colleagues agreed. I was the man of the hour.

Seeing our resolve, Dewey rolled up his sleeves and set to work.

*

Dewey supervised the building of the cabinet to house the card catalogue. He took as his model the Ark of the Covenant as described in the “Book of Exodus”:

And they shall make an ark of shittimwood; two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half the breadth thereof, and a cubit and a half the height thereof.

We built it to withstand the sun and rain and worms. With brass and irony did we fit it and on rubber tires mount it. One month did we labor, such was the hardness of the wood, the obduracy of the metals, the intractability of the porters. In the end we had a cabinet of substance. Its forthright affirmation of three and only three dimensions comforted us.

Dewey was satisfied.

“You may call me Melvil,” he said.

*

To begin with, we catalogued the exotic-- in alphabetical order: the black bulbul, the Boer, the dikdik, the frankolin, the kangaroo rat, the kob, the mongoose, the monitor lizard, the nightjar, the paradise flycatcher, the pocket gopher, the purple ibis, the red bulbul, the yellow bat.

Next the esoteric: epimys nieventrisulae, graphiurus parvus, lophurmys aquilus, oenomys hypoxanthus bacchante, otomys irroratus tropicalis, paraxerus jacksoni, pedetes surdaster, tatera varia Heller, thamnomys surdaster polionops, zelotomys hildegardae.

Then the erotic, for the Library of Congress--the details of which I am forbidden to publish; and finally, after a lengthy passage, several strange alphabets that I have not the keys to reproduce here.

*

The landscape became difficult; our advance slowed. We towed the cabinet tirelessly behind us, bogging down all too often in obscure matter. Dewey lashed our already striped backs. We lost the trail and entered a papier-mâché mush. We argued among ourselves whether this was not the primordial matter with which an illusory nature constituted itself as reality.

Dewey scoffed.

“Nature is bedrock,” he asserted. “Reality sits upon it. Illusion is the theater of con artists, magicians, and priests. All things are classifiable. What isn't doesn't count.”

He returned to his ceaseless cataloguing. The file drawers opened to receive each new card, written in his neat hand. Our taxonomy was stretched to the breaking point.

“Pop!” it went finally with a popping that could be heard for miles around. The center, which we had occupied, which had moved with us every step of the way, moved elsewhere. Saturated, we entered the realm of the purely subjective. Our ears rang.

We found existence on the periphery disturbing. We plotted our position on the X-Y grid, but it kept slipping.

“Slippage!” shouted Quigley. “God have mercy on us all!”

No longer at the center of things, how could we possibly separate one object from another so as first to identify, then classify it? This was the nub of our terror.

Dewey remained calm. He stood on the top of the cabinet for all to see. He was a striking figure in the dying light.

“Courage, men,” he counseled. “The catalogue is nearly complete. There remains but one drawer to fill.”

Our spirits lifted.

“Hooray!” we shouted.

“But first, rest a while,” he said kindly, so that we loved him.

We rested. The world came flooding back. Things returned to normal; that is, our former relationship to them was restored.

“Onward!” exhorted Dewey.

“Onward!” we answered.

*

At last we came to the end of things. Dewey was not surprised.

“It was to be expected,” he said. “In a finite space there can be only a finite number of things. Or, if you prefer, when God rested on the seventh day, creation came to an end.”

We nodded in agreement.

Shortly after, we encountered the Very Last Thing. Because we had been inching our way back in time with every step forward, it also happened to be the First Thing. (Surely you can see that!) Dewey took off his hat and slowly approached it.

“Behold!” he exclaimed. “Alpha & Omega. The Irreducible Object!”

He lifted it carefully for all to see.

We made suitable sounds of awe.

(What was it like, you ask?

It was like nothing. It was like everything. It confounded simile.

It was incomparable!

Was it beautiful?

Who can say.

Was it worth the journey? Impossible to tell.)

With the Great Work finished, Dewey returned to America and his library. Whether he was ever the same again, I do not know. How the journey may have changed me, I didn't have time to consider. The catalogue had to be brought out. We were tired of reading Africa in the original! We needed to disengage ourselves a while from the extremes of experience. We needed therapy followed by a period of convalescence.

We would sit in our tents and study the cards. Little by little, Africa would fade and with it our terror.

We wheeled the cabinet around and started home.



Norman Lock's fiction has appeared in The North American Review, The Paris Review, The Iowa Review, and Locus Novus, among others. His stage plays have been widely produced in the U.S., Germany, and at the Edinburgh Theatre Festival. His short story, "A History of the Imagination," appeared in Issue #4 of The Cafe Irreal. His recently published book, Emigres/Joseph Cornell's Operas, can be ordered online at elimae.


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