Lost in my dreams, I somehow cross at the traffic signals, bumping into street lamps or people, yet moving onward, exuding fumes of beer and grime, yet smiling, because my briefcase is full of books and that very night I expect them to tell me things about myself I do not know.
— Bohumil Hrabal
We are still in the quiet corner of the pub. We watch the waiter return and leave in silence. Do you know why we are here, and not elsewhere?
There are in this world certain lonely places: The mountaintop when a storm begins, a long drive under the obscurity of night, the unfinished attic of an old house as a child, the empty alley of an otherwise busy city. In the prolonged absence of others, our senses both sharpen and diffuse. We might begin to hear the subtle sounds that are forgotten in normal life. We might lose track of time. We become almost at risk of noticing things that are not really there. Solitude conspires with our surroundings to push the seen world and the unseen world closer together. It is no wonder that these settings are where we find ghosts.
I tell you my friend: History is such a place. You are always alone exploring it, and it is always trying to look back at you.
The internet houses the greatest museum that the world has ever made. The humble archivists of every rank—from the employees of major institutions to the smallest town’s historical club—have belabored to digitize their treasure. The world’s vast collections of photographs, paintings, drawings, etchings, and letters sit here, among the internet’s drawers. Almost all are pieces that no earthly museum will ever display: They are too obscure, unattractive, ordinary, and above all simply too numerous for the possibility. Many articles, despite their new home, will only ever be seen by a handful of eyes.
But they are here, our collective inheritance. The shoebox under the earth’s crust, full of all the things we have forgotten.
It is a favorite occupation of mine to drift through this museum. I have seen hundreds of thousands of photographs, etchings, and paintings. I have studied a few. I am looking for the things that are not on any map of history, not in any index. Instead I wish to wonder myself with the sightings too casual to mention in written history. Historical writing often makes the mistake of focusing solely on presence, of what is here and why. But goaded by Zweig, I am looking for traces of absence, the unnamed things that once were, and are silently no longer. I want to see the ghosts.
Of these visual articles I cannot offer a summary of any kind — no slideshow of the most profound or dramatic. I have long since lost their references. But they remain with me, they line the walls of my mind. I offer only fragments.
All learning is remembering. All around us is a great forgetting.
Until very recent times, much of the world was built out of informal spaces. The natural place for a shoemaker’s shop, for instance, is a modest extension of his home. To rent a storefront would be needlessly complex: he would have to find a space, contract with a landlord, pay rent, commute, etc. It may take fewer resources to simply build only what he needs onto his own house, but the important distinction that makes this space informal is not the expense. It is the permission-less nature of creating his own shop, the act of not negotiating with a landlord or any other authority, that makes the practice compelling. In many places to build such a small storefront today, even if it was permitted, would require so-called permits.
A shoemaker may be hard to come by today, but the ghost is the shop: how it was built, how it functioned in life. The shoemaker’s shop—any shop—has become more absent.
Time formalizes. Professionalizes. This brings advantages. But eventually, it conspires to remove the informal.
This is somewhat unfortunate. The work is now out of view. Why does this matter? Because genius is an interaction of people and places.
It is worth remembering from history that the bistro—the small Parisian restaurants serving home-cooked meals in very modest settings—like the cafe before it, was an invention. Many tales exist of its origin. Some say it was working-class landlords opening their kitchens for extra income. Others say it was the Auvergnats, immigrating to Paris from what is today central-south France, who first worked as rag-pickers, then wood and coal sellers, then metalworkers, who created small working-class restaurants to supplement their income. Either way, it was not planned or engineered, but simply not-disallowed. There were no rules in place to stop this invention.
The word bistro has changed meanings since the mid 1900s to mean something quite different, a much trendier place. And why? Partly fashion, but partly because the old model has crept into impossibility.
Perhaps we don’t care, collectively, for this invention. Perhaps inexpensive restaurants are not worth the health risks, the noise, and all the other troubles that lead us to ensure their demise at the hands of fees and approval stamps.
But we do lose a meeting-place. And we again lose the interaction of people. By degrees our space for genius grows smaller. It is no wonder we spend so much time reading little texts on little screens, like this one. It is the last easy place for minds to meet. This is our pub, do you realize?
More important than the restaurant is the people, and not just the patrons.
There are a number of details worth studying in Krøyer’s painting, a favorite of mine. But the subject that enchants me the most are the woman and man behind the bar. They raise to me a thousand questions. Are they the owners? Is this the first floor of someone’s house? Is this a semi-retired couple’s source of income? (How was this place built? Where did the materials come from? How much does it cost to operate? How difficult was it for the owner to open such a place? Could they have done it if they were illiterate? What are all barriers to opening it?)
What are the options for a semi-retired couple today to do something like this? Have we ensured that seniors can still act upon this world, interact with it, in meaningful ways? I pray you understand that this is not a thought about restaurants, but people. The fact is that thousands of new barriers have made this too expensive or complex. Such an osteria no longer exists. The seniors are instead placed in homes. The place is a ghost, and we treat the people as ghosts.
~ ~ ~
If you create a good product or process, and don’t constrain yourself too tightly, it will have other uses that you will discover later. This is true in almost every field. There are a million examples in business, a compact one is the founding of cosmetics company, Avon: A door-to-door bookseller in the late 1800s used perfume samples to try and interest customers. The samples were more popular than the books, so he switched to selling perfume.
Another is the story of YouTube, which began life as a dating site that failed terribly. No one wanted to upload video introductions of themselves, not even after the founders offered $100 for participants to do so. But the video uploading platform created in 2005 was very good, so they simply let anyone upload anything, and the users, not the website creators, found its real uses. The YouTube we know today was an invention that founders let happen, by way of a permission-free set of users.
These stories are not so different from each-other, or the invention of the bistro. There is a large danger in over-engineering your plan, and failing to respond to local conditions. There is great bounty in remaining sensitive to context. We understand this individually. Do we understand it collectively? Are we as a civilization still letting uses be discovered?
Software is attractive to many, myself included, precisely because of its permission-less nature. But instead of praising software, we should think very hard about the ossification of the physical world. On a grand scale, we have come to decide what can be done and what cannot be done, have decided how difficult to make building things that were once permission-less, and have even decided what the nature of work looks like. Ever-rigid systematizing damages the softest fringes of society the most, the tender growth and the deepest roots. The young are more confined to pre-defined destinies. The old are simply confined. A mounting complexity erodes.
I wonder: What were the tradeoffs we wanted to make? Are they really the ones we have made? Can we see them clearly, these ghosts just out of view?
There is more to understand, another time.
Write to me soon,
~ ~ ~
Notes and works, in order
Workmen constructing the Statue of Liberty, hammering copper, at workshop in Paris, 1883
Looking back at you, George Hendrik Breitner, London, 1897
Italian laborers, W. J. Brunell, 1918
[Stefan] Zweig: The World of Yesterday
Carpenter’s shop, James Annan, 1913
Textile mill working all night in Lowell, Massachusetts, Jack Delano, 1941
Scene from the Auvergne, Eugène Isabey, 1832
Osteria in Ravello, Peder Severin Krøyer, 1890
Grand Central Station, Bernice Abbott, 1941