The Fall of the Mundaneum

 

The Universal Bibliographic Repertory which became the Mundaneum (according to the NYT)

ETA: The podcast is now available, for those who prefer audio.

I have a story in the current issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies. It’s called “The Fall of the Mundaneum” and it takes place in Belgium, in August 1914.

I’ve written a lot about the appeal of the archive and library: ”Water Logic” over at Capricious, and The Paradise Engine describe my own experience as a researcher, and the confusing and frustrating labour by which we make meaning out of things left behind. They’re my attempts to capture the pleasure and anxiety of archive fever.

“The Fall of the Mundaneum” is part of the same impulse. I started thinking about it when I first read about Paul Otlet and his Mundaneum, which was a kind of world catalogue, infinitely extendable, and designed to—eventually—take in all human knowledge. It was part of a huge and ambitious project, and an international movement, parallel to (and at odds with) the European arms race that led to the First World War.

Francois Schuiten’s Mundaneum, ca 1998.

My Mundaneum is quite different: it’s a museum and a junk-drawer and a wunderkammer as well as a catalogue; it’s a temple to the utopian dreams of Europe before 1914; it’s a physical wiki-binge. My story follows a young man left in charge of the Mundaneum  just as the Imperial German Army crosses the Belgian border, transforming the world in ways he cannot yet imagine.

There’s a peculiar effect that archives have on you when you’re immersed in them, one that produces both insight and disorientation. You want, desperately, to know, but there’s always far more information than you can manage, even after years of practice. That’s the illness of the archive, an obsession with organizing what you see, making it into something accessible like argument or narrative. But the larger the archive grows, the less likely you are to find a unifying theory for its contents.

le Corbusier’s design for the Mundaneum, commissioned (but never built) in 1929.

“The Fall of the Mundaneum” is about that preoccupation with order at the moment of its destruction, since it’s also about the chaos of the twentieth century smashing into a fantasy of total human knowledge. My narrator is a man trained to organize information and culture, and we watch him collide with mechanized warfare, which is ineffable, and which by its nature disorders the world, despite the rationality of mass troop movements and industrial military production.

In the end, war leaves behind its own archive: one constituted in bodies and objects half-destroyed and unstuck from their provenance, like the very substance of meaninglessness overflowing into the golden summer of 1914, and the beautiful dream of the Mundaneum.

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