Sunday, March 05, 2006

A Fantasy Museum Made Entirely of Words

While reminiscing about Ferdinand Cheval's "ideal palace" in the last entry, I was reminded of Steven Millhauser's story "The Barnum Museum", in the book by the same name. It is not so much a story as a 20-page description of a fantastic museum of the imagination. The scene is set:

The Barnum museum is located in the heart of our city, two blocks north of the financial district. The Romanesque and Gothic entranceways, the paired sphinxes and griffins, the gilded onion domes, the corbeled turrets and mansarded towers, the octagonal cupolas, the crestings and crenellations, all these compose an elusive design that seems calculated to lead the eye restlessly from point to point without permitting it to take in the whole. in fact the structure is so difficult to grasp that we cannot tell whether the Barnum Museum is a single complex building with numerous wings, annexes, additions, and extensions, or whether is it many buildings artfully connected by roofed walkways, stone bridges, flowering arbors, booth-lined arcades, colonnaded passageways.
He goes on to describe the rooms and the exhibits, the Hall of Mermaids, the three subterranean levels, the Chamber of False Things, and even rooms full of ordinary objects.
Even the gift shop is full of wonders:
Old sepia postcards of mermaids and sea dragons...mysterious rubber balls from Arabia that bounce once and remain suspended in the air...shiny red boxes that vanish in direct sunlight...Those who disapprove of the Barnum Museum do not spare the gift shops, which they say are dangerous. For they say it is here that the museum, which by its nature is contemptuous of our world, connects to that world by the act of buying and selling, and indeed insinuates itself into our lives by means of apparently innocent knickknacks carried off in the pockets of children.


Millhauser is one of my favorite writers, a wonderful blend of fantasy and literariness. His stories cover areas of interest to fans of the wondrous, such as automatons, illusionists, vast underground complexes, endless department stores, huge amusement parks, as well as vignettes of ordinary life.

In an interview, he says:
What interests me — not exclusively, but in relation to the monstrous — is the place where the familiar begins to turn strange. When things cease to be themselves, when they begin to turn into something else, which has no name — that is a region I'm always drawn to. This, I think, accounts for my interest in night scenes, in childhood, in bands of prowling adolescent girls, in underground and attic places, in obsession, in heightened states of awareness. In this sense, it might easily be argued that the wondrous and the monstrous are very much the same.

1 comment:

Cog said...

That is too cruel ... now I'll have to re-accquaint myself with amazon... just after I thought that I had taken control of my addiction. Still, whilst I'm there, it'll be a good opportunity to buy another copy of 'Manuscript found in Sargossa' -- which will the 3rd or 4th because I keep leanding it to entities who don't return it. Highly recommended -- a kind of narrative Wunderkammer from the late 18th century with over 200 interlinked and often rather racy stories...