Waste of a Good Education
by Bill Hutchison
“I think it probably started with Corinna,” says Allison Turner. Turner is a fifth-year PhD candidate in the English department at the University of Chicago. She’s also one of the Arts Science Culture Initiative’s fellows for 2016–2017. We’ve just spent the last hour talking about giant piles of garbage, body parts falling off, and an abandoned Japanese theme park devoted to Gulliver’s Travels. Turner had finally wound around to Corinna as a response to what I thought was a simple question: what made you interested in waste as a topic for your dissertation?
Corinna is the subject of a poem by the eighteenth-century British satirist, Jonathan Swift. Swift, it turns out, had a lot to say about waste. Turner’s entrée into Swift’s oeuvre and, eventually, her dissertation, began with a 1734 Swift poem called “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed.” Corinna, we learn in the poem, “was the pride of Drury Lane / for whom no shepherd sighs in vain.” Turner laughs as she starts to tell me the story of Corinna. “It’s not really that funny,” she says apologetically, “it’s actually kind of depressing.” As the poem begins, Corinna sits at her dressing table at night and begins to take herself apart, setting aside those things that made her seem to be a “beautiful young nymph”:
Then, seated on a three-legged chair,
Takes off her artificial hair:
Now, picking out a crystal eye,
She wipes it clean, and lays it by.
Her eye-brows from a mouse’s hide,
Stuck on with art on either side,
Pulls off with care, and first displays ’em,
Then in a play-book smoothly lays ’em.
Now dexterously her plumpers draws,
That serve to fill her hollow jaws.
Untwists a wire; and from her gums
A set of teeth completely comes.
“What struck me about Corinna,” says Turner, “aside from the poem being terribly sad – next she has these nightmares, it’s awful – is that she’s made up of all these parts that come from other places. Her hair, her eyeball, her eyebrows, her teeth, all of it is stuff from out in the world that she makes into herself.” And at the end of the day, she takes herself apart again, quite literally. “Swift ends up talking about women and waste more than once,” Turner says, recalling another Swift poem entitled “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” in which the lovestruck, spying Strephon finds out that his beloved Celia is only human: “Thus finishing his grand survey, / Disgusted Strephon stole away / Repeating in his amorous fits, / Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!”
Turner’s study of waste evolved into looking at the ways in which things that seemed like waste could be reclaimed. “The kind of waste I was interested in was something more like salvage,” Turner explains. As she started looking through other eighteenth-century texts for moments like this, she started seeing what she has come to call “the salvaging disposition,” which, not coincidentally, is the name of her dissertation. The salvaging disposition shows how a whole way of thinking started to evolve, in which that which had been cast off could come to be useful again. Land, resources, and even a novel’s characters could be gathered up, recombined, portioned out, and given new utility. “A lot of what we talk about now—think ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’—starts germinating at this time,” Turner explains. She also crossed paths again with one of literature’s most famous salvagers, Robinson Crusoe. “Materials that had been really important in one moment become something very different after a catastrophic event like a shipwreck,” Turner says. “He finds gold, silver, and coins, but you don’t need money on an island. And while the most important part of a ship is arguably the sail, Robinson Crusoe just ends up cutting it to pieces so he can carry his actually important stuff around, like food, supplies, and this pipe he really likes.”
While her dissertation is mostly about how the salvaging disposition works in the eighteenth century, Turner is interested in all kinds of leftovers. Another Jonathan Swift tale, Gulliver’s Travels, inspired a theme park in Japan. Gulliver famously traveled to the land of Lilliput, which was populated with tiny people who tied the giant Gulliver to the ground. “They had a giant, tied-up Gulliver at this theme park. You could sit there in his hand,” Turner says. The theme park, however, was built with the compound of a religious cult that murdered 13 people in a sarin gas attack in the mid-nineties on one side and a forest known for the large number of people who regularly commit suicide in it on the other. “That captured my imagination—the whole town of Lilliput is built in the real world, and a giant Gulliver was just laying there, designed for lots of people to see, and no one could see it. A theme park, designed as a spectacle, but almost entirely abandoned and forgotten. That’s a powerful image. I wanted to visit it but they tore it down. Now nothing is left, which is even more powerful.”
Turner’s work seeps into her day-to-day life as well. She pulls out her cell phone and shows me pictures of her cats. “That’s Jonathan Swift,” she says, indicating a long, grey boy cat with a very pink nose. “And that’s Poubelle,” she says, pointing to a mostly-black girl cat who looks like trouble. I ask her what the name means. “It’s French for trash can,” Turner answers. “Named after a nineteenth-century administrator in Paris, Eugène Poubelle, who required building-owners to provide waste bins and that trash had to be sorted into the right bin. It was a huge moment in how we started dealing with garbage in the western world.”
Turner says she constantly gets new ideas for her project (“and lots of new side projects,” she says) from the other Arts, Science & Culture fellows. “We have an anthropologist, a butterfly scientist, an artist—we’re all so different. But our conversations inspire me to think in new directions. I remember hearing once that one of the most important things a graduate student can have is a good imagination. When I’m with the other fellows, it feels like we have a collective imagination that is ten times bigger. It overflows in the best ways.” And in that enthusiastic overflow, there’s no imagination wasted.