This is a dark story. I wrote it about my own climate change anxiety, as a kind of exorcism. I don’t know if it worked to exorcise anything, though, since I am still in turns terrified and exhausted, haunted by low-grade anxiety, and ready to scream. I often wonder if this is what it was like to live through other slow disasters: the fall of Rome, maybe? Or the Black Death?
Slow, until it’s fast, of course. And what “fast” will look like I have no idea.
The title comes from Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia. A lot in my life comes from Sir Thomas Browne. I even wrote a novelette (near-novella) about a TB-like character meeting aliens because he struck me as a perfect person to hang out with aliens. Hydriotaphia is about memorialization and failures of memory. It’s about the impossibility of resisting the Opium of time, which temporally considereth all things. There’s something soothing about Hydriotaphia, for me living through this slow disaster, because it is a record of other people’s responses to the end, in whatever form it came to them.
“Our Fathers Find Their Graves in Our Short Memories” is about memorialization, mostly because that’s how I understand disasters best, given my work on war and memory. What does memory look like after the end? My answer was the Ossuary, a virtual urn containing the information we leave behind.
But you would still like to know who started the Ossuary. An elderly woman, contrite after a career in politics spent dismantling the welfare state. A philosopher. A global artist collective. A disappointed coder with a background in conceptual art. A theologian with a lab full of grad students hired to name the dead. Conspiracy theorists liked to present evidence that it was the second website created in September 1991, by an ancient organization that recognized the value of the emergent technology. There is no evidence for this. More recently, people have begun to believe that the Ossuary was generated by the internet itself, sentience emerging from the noise of panic as the anthropogenic end-times pass from theory to reality. There are others who observe earlier memorials—one thinks of the Somme, or Verdun– and reject the suggestion, because the convention is too familiar, its history too long.
ETA: The podcast is now available, for those who prefer audio.
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.
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.
“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.