Able to be Scaled
Left: Hymn, Damien Hirst, 1996
I’ve been thinking about the novelist in the lunatic asylum, the one who decides to write a novel that describes the whole world and everything in it. Pursuing his own mad logic, he gets along pretty well until the moment he realizes that if he’s really going to describe the whole world and everything in it, he’ll have to include himself writing a novel that describes the whole world and everything in it, and within that novel he’ll have to include himself writing a novel, and so on, thereby entering a regress of novels within novels, worlds within worlds. Sounds like way too much trouble, doesn’t it?
What the madman doesn’t realize is that attempting to create a work that encompasses the whole world, is to create a work that’s equal to the world, like those maps described by Borges in “On Exactitude in Science” or by Lewis Carroll in Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, maps with a one to one scale, maps that are equal in size to the territories they chart. “Have you used it much?” Carroll’s narrator enquires.
The real problem for the novelist in the asylum is not that of sanity, and clearly not lack of ambition, but of scale. In the end, any work of art that attempts to describe the world must inevitably be a kind of miniature.
Will Self’s most recent novel Walking to Hollywood features a character named Sherman Oaks, a school friend of the book’s narrator, who’s named Will Self. Oaks is a self-reliant, precocious, strangely confident, and subversive little kid, who’s also a dwarf. In the course of the novel Oaks becomes a very successful conceptual artist, making monumental sculptures based on his own body, pieces that are “twice or three times life size.” I think there are enormous perils in including dwarves in satirical or comic fiction, but in Self’s book the art, the success, the psychology of Sherman Oaks seems utterly convincing.
Oaks creates a sculpture titled Behemoth, “a 128-foot-high body form set astride the Manchester Ship Canal,” and the fictional Self is given a 1:200 scale model of the thing as a present. It’s a satisfying corollary to Damien Hirst’s Hymn, a twenty foot high scaled up version of an anatomical model of the human body that Hirst’s son used to play with. To be precise, the model was “The Young Scientist Anatomy Set,” made by Humbrol Limited, who say they sell more than ten thousand of these toys per year.