The Scrimshaw of Paul Sheerbart

Below is the story of how I came to be in possession of an odd collection of dream-based “scrimshaw”. However, you can also click here to jump immediately to see the images and accompanying texts – select “scrimshaw” as the category on the right-hand menu.

In the late 1990’s I was living in St. John’s, on the far east coast of Canada, where I ran my own small youth hostel. Opening a youth hostel had been an old dream of mine from my own days of backpacking, and promised to provide a solution to the age-old dilemma of creative types everywhere: how to make money. The idea was that I’d work hard over the main tourist season and make enough money to support myself during the long “off” season, which would give me lots of time to burrow into a creative nest. In fact, the hostel proved more successful than I had anticipated, while my novel-writing capacity was a little less powerful than I had expected, so much of my time ended up being spent running the place and talking to the assortment of travelers that managed to find their way to that particular corner of the world.

I mention this because it was through my youth hostel that I became the recipient of a strange collection of objects. One day a man, who seemed a little older than our usual 20-something clients, came and booked himself a bunk in our regular dorm rooms. His age was ambiguous – he had the weathered face of some in their sixties, but from his manner and vitality he was more likely in his late forties. He seemed to be strong and healthy, but with a weathered aspect that added years to his appearance. He introduced himself as Paul Scheerbart, which sounded Dutch to me, but he spoke English with only the very slightest hint of an accent that didn’t sound Dutch, or even European. He tended to eschew the company of the younger guests, who were often curled up with plates of pasta-and-tomato-sauce in front of a movie on the VCR, but I suppose because I was the manager he somehow felt comfortable chatting with me.

His story, when I got it out of him, was an interesting one. Right after graduating from college, Paul had found himself a job teaching English in Japan. These days such jobs are pretty common, but in Paul’s day things were different. His job was not with some fly-by-night “ESL” school where the job stability is negligible and the pay is peanuts, but instead a respectable teaching position at what sounded like a first-rate boarding school of some kind. I guess he had studied Japanese in college and had fallen in love with the culture, so the idea of spending some time there was more than an adolescent pipe-dream.

But what had started as a “year abroad” somehow turned into his entire career. Apparently, the school provided him with a modest apartment, a meal stipend at the faculty commons, and a reasonable salary in valuable Japanese yen. He never married, never had a family, and somehow never developed the need to expand his material status beyond the comfortable but modest state provided by his employers. As a result, he had little need to spend much if any of his monthly paycheck, which simply accumulated in his bank account. His main expense, it turned out, was the annual trip he took during the school’s summer vacation.

But even here Paul insisted on living frugally, far below his means. I think he was captivated by a certain idea of authenticity which is today rather out of fashion. He had no interest in package tours, luxury cruises, fancy hotels, nor or even the innocuous general “sightseeing” that most people take part in on vacation. Instead, he constantly tried to “get into the skin of a place,” as I remember him putting it, which typically involved going to obscure villages or parts of town and trying to engage with locals going about their daily affairs. He would come back talking about the split-pea soup “Mary” had made him in Portugal Cove, or asking my advice about moose hunting (of which I had none), as he had managed to get himself invited on some hunting trip to the middle of nowhere. Paul wasn’t so much a tourist, nor even a “traveller” (as today’s cool tourists like to call themselves).If anything, he resembled a 19th century anthropologist, single-mindedly pursuing whatever he could find that was unique and original to a given place, whatever lay below the veneer of Global McCulture that even back then was coming to settle over much of the planet.

This wanderlust must have began while he was still a young man teaching in Japan. But when I met him, his moderate but largely unspent paychecks had accumulated sufficiently so as to permit him to effectively retire and travel pretty much full time. He was, in essence, homeless, perpetually in motion, continually circling the globe with no fixed itinerary.

***

At any rate, one of the most interesting things about Paul’s journeys was his method of transportation. Rather than air, he always tried to find his way around on the surface of the earth, preferably by sea. He would somehow become part of the crew on huge shipping vessels, fishing trawlers, cruise lines, even large yachts, often paying his way by working in the galley. I don’t think it had anything to do with a fear of air travel. It might have had more to do with his preference for staying among “real” people doing what they normally do. It has often been remarked that air travel has a tendency to be psychologically jarring, picking us up in one world and dropping us too rapidly into another, without providing any sense of transition. By travelling by sea (and train – he liked trains as well), he was able to maintain a kind of phenomenological continuity, if that’s not too fancy a way to put it. He had arrived in St. John’s on board a Russian fishing vessel and had hopes of making his way north into Labrador before heading slowly back to Europe via Iceland, Ireland and Wales, though I had the impression that if he had found passage to Panama on an interesting ship he would have happily set sail there instead.

Paul’s entire existence naturally fascinated me. He completely embodied a particular notion of “freedom” that I had thought was the stuff of myth, 60’s legends or philosophical thought experiments. He had utterly disavowed the common life-script: seeking romance, wealth, family, status, or recognizable accomplishment. Yet he also somehow managed to disavow that very disavowal. So many young people I met while running the hostel were so eager to display their divergence from that script, to boast of their far-flung adventures to exotic Thailand or Katmandu, to recount stories of surfing at Byron Bay or meeting the natives at Machu Pichu. They wore their travels like boy-scout merit badges, tokens of their own depth and world-wisdom, as though the perceived authenticity of those they met in their travels had somehow rubbed off on them and guaranteed them a life less ordinary. The non-conformist subculture of the backpacker circuit is in fact painfully mainstream, as anybody who has spent considerable time on it will know.

Paul, however, was a genuine exception to all this. I think it would have pained him to even talk about the complex social realities of contemporary western tourism. None of it mattered at all to him, and he never boasted about any of his travels. In fact, he often had to be coaxed to talk about his adventures. It was if he lived in an entirely solipsistic universe, and the fact that he had once gone skinny-dipping with the former president of Ghana (or whatever) could only possibly matter to him. If you wanted that experience, you had to go to Ghana yourself.  Especially shocking in today’s selfie-smartphone obsessed culture, Paul to my knowledge took no photographs. He once told me that he would, but only when the technology advanced sufficiently that he could have a camera implanted in his eye, that could be triggered simply by blinking. I guess in his way of thinking the act of actually taking a photo meant stepping outside of the experience itself, abandoning the “now” in anticipation of some future nostalgia.

***

The point of explaining all this is just to give you a sense of who this guy was, or at least who he seemed to be to me. It matters because it is important to see that what came next happened not, I think, out of vanity or even a need to be remembered. Maybe what I think isn’t very important here, but for the record, my view is that after years spent prowling the surface of the earth, surrounded by its extraordinarily diverse peoples, Paul eventually somehow needed to explore the world that had accumulated inside his own head, to find some kind of outlet other than occasional storytelling around communal youth-hostel tables. But this was difficult for him, and he had to find a kind of roundabout way to do it, one that maintained his somehow detached status of anthropological investigator.

The form this outlet took was far from what anyone could have expected. In May of 1999 I received my first package from Paul, who had left a few months prior. In it there were two short messages, and what seemed to be some kind of carved bone. The first message read as follows:

The Backpacker Bunk and Bagel, Circa 1999
The Beachy Cove Cafe, home of some great Split Pea Soup

If anything, he resembled a 19th century anthropologist, single-mindedly pursuing whatever he could find that was unique and original to a given place, whatever lay below the veneer of Global McCulture that even back then was coming to settle over much of the planet.

Paul at his Japanese school?
Inside the Petty Harbour Heritage Museum...

Dear Ben,

I send this to you for safekeeping as it is cumbersome to carry in my pack. Do you remember the scrimshaw displayed at the “Museum of Maritime Life” while I was there? I was inspired by those old whalers who used to pass their long months at sea working on objects like these. As you know I sometimes spend much time on the ocean as well, and this struck me as a decent way to keep myself occupied. I didn’t know what to carve (the whalers would carve naked women or angry whales and such nonsense, but since those things don’t interest me, I decided to carve an image from a dream I had the night before. I don’t know quite why. But I thought of you and your interest in dreaming and I thought you might appreciate it somehow.  You can add it to your Cabinet of Lost and Found Curiousities if you want. (by the way, I saw in New York that the subway authority made a great display similar to yours of things going way back to the 40’s! So I think you’re onto something!).

Your Friend,

Paul Scheerbart

The second note was a short paragraph describing the dream he had:

I was in a dense forest, a pine forest. I was trying to walk, but the branches were too thick, and kept scratching my arms and face, and knocking my glasses off. Finally, exhausted, I came to a clearing, a green meadow. I was sweating and tired, so I lay down on my back in relief and gazed up at the sky above the forest. The sky was blue, but soon these large white cotton clouds started to drift in, quite high up. And then I somehow realized that they were not clouds, but actually thick, steamy smoke, like the kind you see in images of nuclear reactors. I sat up and looked around and saw that the smoke was pouring out of the chimneys of this enormous factory or industrial plant of some kind. There were huge piles of chopped lumber everywhere. It was as if the goal of the factory was not to turn the wood into anything except these huge clouds of steam/smoke – it was a kind of cloud factory. The sight of this factory made me strangely nervous for some reason, but I began to move closer to it, and as I did so I could see trucks and forklifts and machines going back and forth, moving the huge piles of wood around. But at the same time it somehow dawned on me that this was actually just an elaborate front, that all this effort was to disguise what was really going on here. It isn’t easy to explain. But when I came to realize what they were actually doing, it terrified me so much that I woke up. 

The first scrimshaw I received from Paul (click to enlarge)

And there was the carved “bone” (or tusk?) itself, which featured a simple inked etching of a factory pumping out smoke (above).

Honestly, I was touched by the fact that this reclusive man had reached out to me in this admittedly mysterious way. It wasn’t as though we had become particularly close. I assume he chose me because he had learned about scrimshaw at a small heritage museum in a nearby village, and he somehow associated the practice with his stay here. And he knew of my interest in dreams – we had had a long conversation about the subject and I told him about the early days of Arinsky’s and Kleitman’s research on REM.

Then, a month later, another package arrived, and this time, along with the short dream text, the note only read “Ben – Another ‘scrimshaw’ for your collection. – Regards, Paul”. A few months later, another arrived, and then another, this time with no introductory note at all, just a description of a dream and a strange scrimshaw object. Even after I decided to get out of the youth hostel business and move elsewhere, I set up a mail-forwarding service just to make sure I didn’t miss any of Paul’s packages. Between 1999 and July of 2015 I had received 27 samples of Paul’s work, ranging from fairly large and ornate tusks to small fragments with more minimal drawings.

***

I have not received any word from Paul since that last package in 2015, and have no idea what has happened to him. It is possible that he simply decided to retire from his retirement (as he must be genuinely getting up there in age by now). Maybe he went back and settled down in Japan, or the Netherlands, or wherever he actually came from. It is also possible that he finally met with some sort of misadventure in an exotic port, or was simply hit by a bus in Boston. Searching on the Internet has only revealed that he shares a name with an obscure author of German science fiction (or perhaps Paul Scheerbart was never his real name to begin with?).

Whatever the fate of the man, I have become the de facto curator of his obscure handiworks, and after three years with no word, I can only assume that “Paul” has either passed on or at any rate no longer much cares what happens to the objects he sent me. Over the years they have provided a great deal of personal pleasure and provoked a great deal of thought, and I believe they ought to be shared with a wider audience. It is for that reason that I am going to slowly make them available here.

Another of Paul's scrimshaw (click to enlarge).
A scrimshaw of a gas station!