Among his many contributions to the study of natural history and philosophy in the mid-1600s, Danish physician Ole Worm is credited with undressing the unicorn. Proclaiming that the tall, pointy horn assigned to its head in fact belonged to the narwhal, Worm was able to further impart the knowledge that—contra everyone from the Greeks to citers of the “Indian rhinoceros” to God in his address to Job—the beast probably wasn’t real. In the early 1900s, the question of the unicorn was recruited for an entirely different debate when Austrian philosopher Alexius Meinong argued over the inequity of an ontological status that is ascribed to things that exist—horses, for example—and denied to those that don’t. Yes, the unicorn is chiefly an object of thought, but it is as an object of thought that we bring it into being.
Had Meinong and Worm ever met, they might have discovered that they shared other interests. Worm was a voracious collector of relics and artifacts and came to be known for his Wunderkammer, or “wonder-room,” a cabinet of curiosities filled with natural and man-made objects. He was also interested in how placing a thing outside of its natural environment might impact its meaning. Meinong’s interest, meanwhile, was in nonexistent objects. Think about something that doesn’t exist, perhaps a golden mountain, and the very act of your thinking about it gives it a kind of being. He proposed that we affirm the nonbeing of things, some of which might merely be homeless, hovering somewhere between being and nonbeing, perhaps waiting patiently to a grating musical loop for the next available representative. Meinong gave real things that don’t exist their due in his 1904 essay “Theory of Objects,” in which he extended the idea that certain objects might belong to a higher order. Unicorns were less interesting here than was the sense of forward momentum in the vast debate over what is logical. You don’t need to be Wittgenstein to question the validity and usefulness of logic, or to see that often it is not the thing in itself to which you are drawn but what the thing represents: power, comfort, danger. (This can be as real as peach pie, as far as you’re concerned.)
To Sebastian Wigrum, the central character of Daniel Canty’s novel, objects represent the unknowable—the “patron saints of a godless world,” he calls them—and as a collector he has made his life’s work the acquisition and meticulous cataloging of them. Of Wigrum himself we are told comparatively little: he was born in Hungary in 1899, the son of an artist; he was celebrated by historians for his book On the Souvenir as Art Object; he disappeared in October 1944, on the day the novel opens, amid the destruction of London. What we go on to read are the notes he has collected throughout his career as an Ordinary Collector; Canty’s dreamlike narrative reads like the ethereal ruminations of a man whose accrual of artifacts has transcended physical limits. “The desire to know,” Wigrum contends, “gradually gives way to a questionless mystery.”
Wigrum is essentially a novel by way of an encyclopedia, a list of more than a hundred objects left behind by writers and cognitivists and mysterious people with melancholic dispositions who make brief appearances but exist mainly as ticket stubs, unsent letters, a sponge, a half-eaten cookie. These ostensibly insignificant items provide an opportunity to observe “the natural birth of ideas under the influence of inanimate matter.” Fittingly, the writers, or their effects, take center stage: Samuel Beckett’s saliva, a bar of soap that once scrubbed the armpits of Arthur Rimbaud, a chessboard Nathaniel Hawthorne gave to Herman Melville to console him on the commercial failure of Moby-Dick. These are cataloged alongside evidence of a few unforgettable fictional characters: Holden Caulfield’s hat proves he wasn’t just Salinger’s invention; the pens Robert Louis Stevenson picked up at the “suicide club” in London, written about in his New Arabian Nights, prove the club wasn’t fabricated.
But fabrications abound, too: for instance, the work of a writer named Timothée de Bréche, who has produced a stylistically complex crime novel that obliterates its own creator: the grammar and syntax grow so dense and obfuscated that the novel becomes unreadable, the writer vanishing into his work and finally being erased by it. Or an audio unit that plays a looped refrain of “I love you” and “I’ve never been born” in a cold, robotic voice. (The Amorous Circuit, 1981 speeds past the question of the meaning objects have in our lives in pursuit of a more interesting tale, that of Agnes K. Traumtänzer, a young German woman who kept the unit permanently plugged into her ears for two years, during which time she cried continuously. It’s part of the Prague Collection and, Wigrum tells us was a hit with the Goth scene in 1980s Berlin.)
Wigrum’s idiosyncratic curatorial flare and obsession with the flow of time—he can’t stop talking about death, permanence, impermanence—shapes his note-taking and storytelling into a rousing and mysterious inventory of the past and future. (It has also led to the development of a branch of knowledge known as Wigrumian studies.) The novel around it is a looking-glass peek at all kinds of mathematical and metaphysical concepts, and the indefinite legacy of social constructionism, blah blah blah; if you’re less into the Meinongian higher-order stuff—What Exists, What Doesn’t, and the Lexicon That Attempts to Speak for Existence—you might consider it a meditation on intellectual property.
Or you might just use it as an exercise in self-realization. Imagine for a moment that you’ve been appointed curator of an exhibit at the Museum of Your Apartment on One Hundred and Fourth Street: My Cluttered Existence: Artifacts and Ephemera of a Twenty-First-Century Kleptomaniac (or Middle-School Teacher or Heart Surgeon). Consider the objects that sit on your shelves for the world to look at; ditto the ones you can’t see, the ones crammed into a dusty box in the corner of your closet on top of those boots you will never wear. If you were to vanish tomorrow, they would still be here to tell a story. Remember when Plato claimed that the soul is immortal, and suggested that we learn not by acquiring new facts but by recovering what we have forgotten from past lives? What facts are you currently made of? What percentage of you is narwhal? How much of what will be left of you after you disappear is real?