The Ancient Modern
A System of Cross-Referenced Files / Joshua Alan Sturgill
You ask me: what am I doing alone in this empty room
with piles of boxes and loose pages spread out around me?
The short answer is, I’m cataloging them. I’m going back
through all these boxes of history, trying any arrangement
or presentation which will reveal their veiled pattern, but
not for the reason you might expect. The room? A room
like this is necessary, of course. Any dry, quiet warehouse
will do, though a cathedral is best. Or an old library. But
it must swept clean of opinion, without prior structures
of assumption. So, goodbye Hegel. And goodbye Freud.
And goodbye Dewey (whom I knew too well too young).
And goodbye Gibbon — you’ve only hindered the work.
What is in the boxes? Mostly events and images and as-yet-
unconnected dates. Like this: EVENTS: the Renaissance,
the Flood, the Columbian Exchange, Alexander’s conquests,
9/11. PEOPLE: Robespierre, Gandi, Washington, Gilgamesh.
And such lovely WORDS: Inter Caetera, Euclidean, Greco-
Roman, Atlantis, Wakan Tanka, gunpowder. You would like
to know where I found them? So many sources. Sketches,
notes and photographs, pages in obsolete textbooks, yellowed
Victorian newspapers (very brittle by now), glossy 1970’s
gas station magazines (so illicit in their day), Holy Cards
of Our Lady of Guadalupe collected from all over the world.
I’ve kept it all, piled in this great, empty room with its tall
windows and concrete floor. The work of sorting it is very
uncomfortable. I have no furniture; I kneel, cramped, over
the sets and patterns I’m attempting to discern. But discomfort
is a tonic, helping me focus on the task rather than distractions.
How did I begin? First, I tried laying history out in a single,
chronological row. But the line quickly became a spiral as it
met the walls of the room and turned back on itself. Next,
I tried stacks by subject. When ‘subject’ proved too ambiguous,
I devised a system of cross-referenced files in order of
importance or interest. But importance to what? And interest
to whom? My own interest shifted with each new arrangement.
How many years have I been here? A long time. Since I can
remember remembering. So long that the Sun has swung
slowly around to the western windows and great blocks
of light now lean on the eastern walls. Forgive me, but I find it
difficult to answer general questions, and there is one thing you
must know: the significant change in my approach. Until recently,
I had the idea that I would eventually ‘figure it out.’ That I’d find
the Grand Unifying Theory. But slowly I recognize that perhaps
more fundamental than importance or utility, even more basic
than cause-and-effect, is a hidden but very real organization
I can only call Mythological. And this mysterious organization
history itself will teach me. So I keep working, but no longer
with the assumption that I will discover anything by my own
effort or talent. My task has become simply to exhaust all
possibilities and impositions of meaning. All configurations
I can conceive must be tried so that I can watch them fail. I’ve
even begun to delight in futility, because I know that with a
final failure I will suddenly see It: the Face of History. This is
my new ambition. Not the key or solution, the Face. What then?
I will laugh aloud. I’ll Laugh because I will know everything
I did before, every green, youthful assumption was so feeble,
so arrogant. All along I was part of what I was trying to see. I’ll
come to the end of the work and the end of myself simultaneously.
From outside, it must appear that nothing has changed. I go on
filing. But how different in essence! I laugh a little even now,
remembering how I used to plod along in blind hubris — like a
seminary professor stubbornly arguing about theology with a Saint,
or a linguist teaching Sanskrit grammar to Brahmins who, since
childhood, lived by heart the deeper meaning of the Vedic Hymns