Dusting My Bookshelves

by Jessica Sequeira

'And so things happened: Martín told Jerónimo, Jerónimo told Catilinón, Catilinón told Nuño, one whispering to another, Nuño in Martín’s ear, as they were eating their chick-peas or stirring the fires or slaking the lime, wrapped in a dense cloud of smoke and dust that muted the tones of the uneasy, secretive voices sliced by the knives of the sun. . .'
—Carlos Fuentes, trans. Margaret Sayers Peden, Terra nostra

Cleaning isn’t something I particularly enjoy, but dusting bookshelves is an exception. It’s a chance to slowly visit books, to look at those I forgot to begin, those I dutifully underlined and stuck notes into, those I sped through with excitement, expanding my head and heartspace. There’s work to do. All day long dust enters through the broad window, drifts and settles on the shelves. I come prepared with lemon-scented lysol wipes and a damp cloth, to carefully swab away the dust with its stories to tell, its centuries of tales come from rocks or human bodies. But quickly I am distracted by the knick-knacks usually neglected, the stone statues and miniature hookah and earring I’d been searching for and plastic toy rickshaw, little worlds that only in this close-up view do I really see — not to mention the books themselves, behind the dust.

The spines wait patiently as I flit from shelf to shelf without logic, titles combining in ways I couldn’t have invented. As I walk from one book and object to another, my mind disorders and disarranges, undoing its chronologies and linearities in a new world where all time periods co-exist. Every possible author can comment on another, Charlotte Roche on Jorge Teillier, Seneca on Jules Renard. The most diverse styles can supply glosses, B picking up where A left off, or giving tips to C (yet to be born). The dead are in dialogue with the living, and the living alter existing perceptions of the dead.

To move so freely between periods of the past, fictional and historical, might feel like an indulgence, especially at a time like the present, saturated with legitimate concerns over medical and political bodies. But the longer view seems necessary, too. Nowadays it’s modish to rail against the ‘realist’ novel, but a ‘full’ realism involves everything, past and present, fact and fantasy, illness and eroticism and imagination. Not as riotous maximalism, but as a choice of a pathway through the information. To speak intimately with past thoughts, and with things not ourselves, can help give thickness to our notions at a time which sometimes seems conceptually thin as a pink wafer (and just as unsatisfying).

The cacerolazos are starting again. From the windows, people bang on pans to protest the government, some using smart phones to put on a banging pot recording that can go on forever, that never tires and sounds just as urgent and irritating as the real thing  —  the point, precisely. It makes sense, I think. Here capitalism ,  the modern machine , is being used to protest the abuses of capitalism and the modern machine. Technology used to protest technology. Protests, well targeted, serve a purpose in expressing collective emotion and kicking against complacency, but I must admit I more naturally curl up with old pages, forgotten authors, dormant ideas. The world is loud, books are mute. And something about literature involves the strange process of making the living crashing world into the quiet of the monastery. A fragile task, but just as necessary as pot-banging, or so I choose to believe. Besides, the books are not totally silent. Quiet does not mean lifeless. Archives of human ideas, amongst each other they rustle and susurrate. They spread rumours and histories, make new interpretations of old words. Temporarily, they use me and the molecules in my brain as their human vessel to form connections. Certain thought-leaps are not found in any particular book, but between them, in the mode of weaving together not-yet-considered patterns. Or else known patterns, seen anew. I clumsily replicate this thinking process as I walk around with the cleaning tools, looking at first one book, then another, then another. . .

I like to imagine the human archive of books coming into contact with the non-human archive of dust. Do the two converse with each other in languages we can’t understand? It almost gives me the perfect excuse not to clean. Sometimes I suspect that dusting, at least the not very professional way that I do it, involves moving around existing dust more than getting rid of it. For every bit that sticks to the damp cloth or fancy wipe, or is sucked into the gaping abyss of the hoover, the motion of the cleaning implement through space, and my own body, throw the particles into a flurry. They rush about, the dust on Book A floating madly over to Book B, and when I reach it there rushing to Book C, and onward ho!, or else back to its place of origin. Or the floor, or the counter, or (to better hide itself) the incense burner. . . My clothes, hair, mask also transport dust. Afterward I take a long shower. Things are ‘clean’ now, so far as they go. But some dust keeps floating about for a while, circulating between books, tracing out new figures, throwing welcome parties for the newcomers already starting to coast in through the broad window.

Perhaps the dust has come to listen to the books and bring news of worlds yet unwritten, and I am the foolish interloper — an ass with rag in hand. Yet interlope I do. Trying to maintain a space artificially free of dusk is a Sisyphean task, especially in this place. It will never be truly clean. As soon as I start on the second shelf, the first is already beginning to accumulate particles. In its drifting, passive way, dust is bloody obstinate. Even in the times of the colonies, ladies were complaining about its omnipresence, unavoidable, annoying, getting into eyes, folds of dresses, hats and shoes. Wikipedia says it is ‘composed of small amounts of plant pollen, human and other animal hairs, textile fibers, paper fibers, minerals from outdoor soil, burnt meteorite particles, and many other materials which may be found in the local environment.’

Dust has a dry sense of humour. It can clog up machines to stop them from working, blind oxen in a storm, muffle sounds. Or recall them for future use — scientists now say dust can store sounds as memory. Perhaps forever, perhaps as glow. Cosmic dust is what makes the beautiful light you see in pictures of the universe. Dust does has no prejudices. It just settles, moving toward inertia, getting into the gears of progress until events are finished, done and dusted, the dust settled. Even the gunpowder.

Such non-human matter often lives side by side by humans without problems, but it doesn’t necessarily care about them. My eyes are swollen and red today from hugging the cat last night. Not wanting to budge that warm loving bulk — perhaps even more stubborn than dust — I tried to delicately remove my contact lenses with unwashed hands. An error. Whatever the cat carried on its fur from an afternoon doing somersaults, making excursions, rubbing itself against the brick and ground of the balcony, passed direct into my eye, which recoiled in horror. Pollen! The eye is not an old church in which motes spin and surrender, blissful in stained-glass light. Nor is it like books, in this respect. It does not tolerate contact. No, the eye is all too human. I cried and howled in pain, an animal like any other, making the cat flee with terror as if scalded. So much for not disturbing him. I flushed my eyes with water, washed my hands with soap. Books can revel in dirt. The living require hygiene.

It begs the question, though: what to do with this aching perception, so rudimentary? We humans can make new connections and spin new interpretations between archives of past human ideas and archives of non-human matter, then explore the consequences of their relations. An objective reality is beyond access. We must agree on certain perceptions and morals. In the light, the dust is gold; in the dark, black. The same objects and facts are interpreted and reinterpreted in time. What was once considered beneficial (e.g. slapping a child) is now despicable. Quentin Skinner calls this paradiastolic redescription, and gives the example of the same facts presented one way by a prosecutor, another by a criminal solicitor. Machiavelli drew on ancient rhetorical techniques to redefine words like liberality and clemency, and Nietszche famously described Christian virtue as slave morality. If everyone agreed dust were blue, for all practical purposes it would be blue. Thus a new constitution requires a collective agreement about ideas, a description of society, a balance of values. And a new literary argument involves an author’s assessment of past books, a creative formal approach, a consideration of language. Ars combinatoria. Nothing new about it. Add a ‘re-‘ before every word. A blending and juxtaposition of different elements to make narrative, then a step back to check that the painting looks alright.

The current moment will always be what is loudest, what presses in with its demands, what most compels. But the text begins and ends in the background, in the books and dust where beginnings and endings scarper the forward arrow of History, bursting and folding into spirals, loops, constellations. The vibrations of the clanging pots and pans continue to live in the written volumes and the memories of dust, beyond or without the humans who loudly set about cooking lentil soup, opening a bottle of red wine, talking until all outside becomes silence. A single route through the options available. It’s late now and most people sleep. But books as human archive and dust as non-human archive — actors, both — keep their vigil, patient, biding their time as enemies or accomplices.