24 Blank Paper (2)

Object type: Laetitia Pilkington, Memoirs, vol 1, 109-110. 

Materials: Ink on paper; calf on boards

© Image by curator.


For a while, as I was compiling this museum, this webpage was simply blank—and, in light of its topic, I briefly thought about leaving it that way.  But this would be against the spirit of the exhibit.  For what I mean to discuss is paper that used to be blank, or, put differently, what it means to think of writing as the destruction of blankness.

The object of this exhibit isn't blank paper, exactly.  It is a poem called blank paper, a short piece penned by Laetitia Pilkington, stolen from her (by her own account) before being published in her memoirs as her own.  That the poem was stolen is no surprise.  Laetitia Pilkington’s life was shot through with loss.  So, too are her Memoirs; they record so many episode of loss, of lost property, missed chances, lost time, and so on, that they consist of practically nothing else.  I doubt that the math works; it seems to me that she loses far more than she ever owned.  But this, I suspect, is just part of how her mind worked.  She had come to think of gain as loss, and vice versa.  It is for this reason that she represents an important entry in attempts to think our way to alternatives to thinking of the mind as a collection.  Thinking programmatically about loss is one way of capturing a dispossession as a cognitive principle.

The Memoirs not only record episodes from Pilkington’s life; they also include a selection of her poems.  In fact, in most cases, we only know that a poem was hers because she published it as hers in these same memoirs.  And these poems evince a curious feature.  Like Pilkington's life, her poems, too, are characterized by loss.  In the first hundred or so pages of her memoirs alone, Pilkington includes a poem about a bird about to be shot, a prince who has forgotten even the image of his wife, an eagle quill about to be “robbed” of its “eternal fame,” and another about the destruction of paper in the production of poetry.  Each of these poems, that is, begins with the threat of loss, even as it lurches into motion.

Consider the last of these, a poem on paper (the pun is Pilkington’s) which, when it was reprinted in a newspaper and given a title, bore a paradox: “Carte Blanche,” or, “Blank Paper”:

O spotless paper, fair and white!
On whom, by force, constrain’d I write,
How cruel am I to destroy
Thy purity to please a boy?
Ungrateful I, thus to abuse
The fairest servant of the Muse.
Dear friend, to whom I oft impart
The choicest secrets of my heart,
Ah, what atonement can be made
For spotless innocence betray’d?
How fair, how lovely didst thou show,
Like lilly’d banks, or falling snow!
But now, alas, become my prey,
No floods can wash thy stains away.
Yet this small comfort I can give,
That which destroy’d shall make thee live.

It takes a special kind of mind to think this way—to think about creativity as destruction.  We are in general tempted to think of language as a kind of informational code, borne on a medium; paper is one of many media that bear language as content.  Being written on is paper’s very purpose, as what enables exchange.  But Pilkington is clearly capable of attending to the cost of the relays that make exchange possible.  And in her accounting, every communication is the kind of transaction that destroys as much as it creates.  Rather than thinking of herself as the creator of a poem, she announces herself as one who deforms blankness.

There is much to be said, here, about the traditions that Pilkington is working in and against.  Similar figures would emerge a couple of decades later, within and around the frustrated projects of Tristram Shandy, William Hunter, and others (see Exhibit 19).  She is clearly offering, as well, an early example of a kind of tale catalogued by Susan Gubar (“The Blank Page,” 1981).  And, finally, whether she meant to or not, Pilkington was speaking within and against the empiricist tradition that conceives of the mind as blank paper, where knowledge is always loss attended by loss. 

I have suggested elsewhere in this museum that Pilkington’s mind was shaped by her environment.  This is true for everyone, of course; it is only that it was especially true for Pilkington, and in a striking way.  She thought of writing as a kind of trade, which, like any trade, balances credits and debits, gains with losses (Exhibit 23).  Here, I want to suggest that Pilkington internalized this principle as a way of thinking of thought.  That is, she has internalized loss as a neurological principle.  She puts it this way:

I have known a person who in his Youth was an extraordinary Adept in Music, and performed on several Instruments extreamly well. I saw the same Person some Years after, and lo! His Musical Talent was entirely lost, and he was then a very good Painter. Now I cou’d not help forming a Notion in my own Mind, that as our Ideas depend on the Fibres of the Brain, it was possible we might by the continual Use of some particular one, weaken it so as to make it perish, and at the same time, another might exert from that very Cause itself with double Strength. Thus, I suppose, when this Gentleman’s Musical Fibres perished, his Painting ones shot forth with Vigour. If there be any Truth in this Whim of mine, which I own, I am fond of believing myself, we may easily account for the various dispositions which we meet with, even in the same Person at different Periods of Life.

Elsewhere, Pilkington offers a relatively straight version of the container model of the brain; she thinks of memory as a repository.  This is a cognitive theory, which is to say, a metaphor for mental processes.  But here she is straining towards a neurological theory—a model of the brain’s wetware, or of the physical processes that underlie mental experience.  And what she offers is a version of loss as gain.  She frames her theory through a vegetable or botanical metaphor.  One group of “Fibres of the Brain” respond to the decline of others by redoubling their own growth.  But the metaphor, in the end, isn’t botanical at all.  Limbs of trees or of plants don’t perish through continual use.  It’s hard to think of how a plant could be said to “use” its limbs.  Rather, the logic is in the end the basic coordinating arithmetic of the double-entry ledger, of the merchant or trader for whom loss is always counterbalanced by gain.  Pilkington’s brain, at least as she understands it, is a fibrous account-book.

This basic batch of principles penetrates even to her sense of how learning happens.  She remembers learning to read because of pain in her eyes; she misremembers an episode from Gulliver’s Travels as reinforcing the lesson that we remember what is attended by pain.  As Pilkington knows from Alexander Pope—from an obscure passage in his translation of the Odyssey, “he who much has suffer’d, much will know;/ And pleas’d remembrance builds delight on woe.”

In general, we think of the mind as a repository.  We lay up ideas for later consultation.  It is the argument of this museum that models like these are based on the environments in which we live.  They are a sign of the times—of a regime in which it is possible to own things unproblematically.  Pilkington clearly offers an alternative.  This is not a cognitive model based on possession, but upon continual, categorical dispossession.  We generally call the epistemology and theory of rights descending from men like John Locke and Joseph Addison “possessive individualism.”  We might coin an alternative, descending from women like Pilkington: call it “dispossessive individualism,” the mind as a site of exchange and compensation.

As a final point, we might say that Pilkington’s neurophysiological theories help explain the particularly barbed style of her memoirs.  The Addisonian essay develops through the pleasure of repeated association; this pleasure is its neurological principle (see Exhibit 14).  Mutual possession is the background of politeness, at least of the particular kinds pioneered by people like Addison.  Contrariwise, the give-and-take of the scandalous memoir develops s the compensation of dispossession; it is what balances Pilkington’s books. Blackmail, burlesque, scandal, satire, and the ad hominem attack: Pilkington’s Memoirs convert memories of exploitation and loss into current, vendible accounts.  Suffering, especially the pain of loss, runs therefore like a tracer dye through Pilkington’s autobiography.  Episodes of loss register the acquisition of the materials of literary expression.  The episodes she remembers to publish are those most heavily marked by her dispossession.