Toy Chest

“It is like a vast grey box in which are laid helter-skelter a great many toys, each of which is itself completely significant apart from the always unchanging temporal dimension which merely contains it along with the rest. I make this point clear for the benefit of any of my readers who have not had the distinguished privilege of being in jail. To those who have been in jail my meaning is at once apparent; particularly if they have had the highly enlightening experience of being in jail with a perfectly indefinite sentence. How, in such a case, could events occur and be remembered otherwise than as individualities distinct from Time Itself? Or, since one day and the next are the same to such a prisoner, where does Time come in at all? Obviously, once the prisoner is habituated to his environment, once he accepts the fact that speculation as to when he will regain his liberty cannot possibly shorten the hours of his incarceration and may very well drive him into a state of unhappiness (not to say morbidity), events can no longer succeed each other: whatever happens, while it may happen in connection with some other perfectly distinct happening, does not happen in a scale of temporal priorities—each happening is self-sufficient, irrespective of minutes, months and the other treasures of freedom.

It is for this reason that I do not purpose to inflict upon the reader a diary of my alternative aliveness and nonexistence at La Ferté—not because such a diary would unutterably bore him, but because the diary or time method is a technique which cannot possibly do justice to timelessness. I shall (on the contrary) lift from their grey box at random certain (to me) more or less astonishing toys; which may or may not please the reader, but whose colours and shapes and textures are a part of that actual Present—without future and past-whereof they alone are cognizant who, so to speak, have submitted to an amputation of the world. ” (ee cummings, The Enormous Room)

The remarkable passage above belongs to ee cummings. It introduces the period in his autobiographical work, The Enormous Room, in which he was incarcerated in a military prison without charge or sentence. The passage signals a transition in the narrative. In previous chapters, cummings played the role of the foreigner abroad. We was traveling or being made to travel. Each episode presents him with increasingly unfamiliar circumstances. Now, he is brought to the prison where he is to remain indefinitely. The narrator informs us the linear progress that we are accustomed to seeing in stories must come to a halt. The narrative, along with its protagonist, is put into suspension. The experience is incomparable, we are told. There arises a disruption in continuity, which causes traditional relationships and associations to vanish. The narrator is essentially being released into a social and temporal vacuum. Context is stripped away and we are left with only essence. This sudden disintegration of meaning should be terrifying, yet narrator is unperturbed. In fact, he seems pleased. We struggle to discern whether the tone is ironic. Partly it is. The narrator(cummings?) is subjected to unmistakable torment, but he is so enthralled by the novelty of the situation. This enormous room new world with a new set of incomprehensible principles. People and objects are discovered like uncharted continents. In the absence of shared custom or rules of conduct for entreating these unknown entities, the narrator is free to entreat them exactly as he wishes. Naturally, his first impulse is to play with them. All methods of conduct must be refashioned and the only effective way of doing so is through goofing and using the imagination to project meaning where none can be found. For this reason, he calls them toys. He finds that playing with them is remarkably stimulating, liberating even.

The purpose of this work is to present a vehicle through which cummings can share his toys with us. We admire them together, author and reader. We are, he hopes, as interested and “astonished” as he is.

When ee cummings is finally released from the enormous room, he returns home to New York and encounters the mob of the city. To his surprise, these people also are toys. Though they have decipherable histories, recognized behaviors, subjective agency, power of communication, the subtext of the enormous room remains, suggesting that all of these supposedly concrete elements that make up the identity are illusory. When cummings first spots people from the ship’s deck arriving in New York harbor, they are so distant they are dots, like seeds potential germinate into wonderful possibility. He describes them in the following line, which also concludes the book: “..which are men which are women and which are things new and curious and hard and strange and vibrant and immense, lifting with a great undulous stride firmly into immortal sunlight.”

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