Friday, August 17, 2012

philately and a mood of abstraction

I may very well have misplaced my mind, ages ago (into some tangential dimension). What I want to write about here might not make any sense, to sensible people. I will attempt to describe a phenomenon that might very well be peculiar to my form of consciousness. I will attempt to write about an aspect of stamp collecting that is quite odd, even odder than the intrinsic oddness of stamp collecting per se.

I don't really know why people collect stamps. I think, among the serious and knowledgeable philatelists, there must be an active energy of compulsive neurosis at work. Of course, some dull people collect them as mere investment. Among the casual, non-obsessive type, it's probably about the pretty, evocative squares, rectangles, and occasional triangles. Maybe even a kind of romance is afoot in the contemplation of how these perforated images have the power to magically transport letters and postcards across the wild and woolly globe.

For me, it was something else, a thing that is almost impossible to describe. More about that below.

Serious and semi-serious stamp collecting is expensive. For a kid back in the '50s and '60s who wanted to go beyond stamps removed from letters by soaking, the costs were prohibitive. A kid who wanted to order neat stamps from companies located in exotic places like New York City had to be mostly just a dreamer. Stamps would come from those companies as "Approvals," in small plastic envelopes. You paid for the ones you could afford, then mailed the other stamps back to...New York City! This whole process sent you into spiritual disorder and early sorrow when you realized you had to send back the wonderful expensive ones.

I saved my allowance and eventually purchased a much larger album -- an impressive "Ambassador" manufactured by H.E. Harris & Sons, Inc., located guessed it! Buying older, cooler, "mint" stamps cost a lot. But you were hooked, by some vague allure, so you must keep trying to get stamps for your new album.

Stamps from the 1920s really had something going for them.

Oh...I almost forgot. Some old guy died. His wife, Mrs. Burnside, who was my watercolor art teacher, gave me Mr. Burnside's old stamp collection. I still have this large stamp from Ecuador that was in his album:

When I was a kid, I would stare at it forever, through a special lamp/magnifying glass my Daddy got for me.

Okay, now it's time to get down to cases, to why I wanted to write about stamp collecting. But this is going to be hard to describe. Because the actual, physical stamps themselves play a subsidiary, superficial role. It's about something else.

When I was a kid, something began happening to me with this stamp stuff. I didn't understand what was going on. My little consciousness was being re-cast and transmogrified into a bizarre new shape while involved in the whole stamp thing. It was turning me, unawares, into a creature of eccentric and beautiful abstraction -- opening up space for uncalled-for and far-fetched moods. A force "stamping" me with a quiet, exquisite, and lugubrious effect. A hyper-insularity began to take shape in my young soul.

Maybe you had to be from south Arkansas. Maybe if you lived in St. Louis or Phoenix or Seattle back then, you didn't turn into something strange. I just have no way of knowing about that.

It was about the stamps I did not have and would probably never have that caused this moody effect. It was about the indefinite sense of longing toward a somethingness. And about how those black-and-white printed images in the album (onto which you mounted the actual matching stamp) cast such a haunting aura of abject difference onto my world of circumscribed experience.

And knowing that if I ever did get those actual stamps to mount on the printed images (using adhesive "hinges"), I would have to go through...New York City. Into and through all the alien impressions stimulated by that distant, magical place. That city of large buildings and men in dark suits. Men who like sophisticated wizards moved in swirls of esoteric wealth and arcane stamp knowledge! That city -- portal to the beyond, to decadence, to Europe and the wild world.

The black-and-white printed images in the album had to do with actual far-flung countries, some of them celebrating important real people. Some from other real times. But I had gone beyond all that normal stuff. I was inhabiting a personal environment of fantastical imagining. The countries of those potential stamps were no longer real countries. The important people on those potential stamps were no longer members of the terrestrial clan. And the older times depicted in faint printed tones were temporally dubious. Those printed album images of stamps had abstracted into half-real moments of insular wonder. They induced a condition of gray-shade alterity, of equivocal reality.

Well...that's the best I can do, as far as trying to describe my unusual stamp experience.

Postscript: when I was in my thirties, I had an outburst of nostalgia and renewed compulsion about stamps. It didn't last very long, but it sent me into a spiral of nerdy research and moody contemplation. Yes, I wanted to step things up a notch, get into real philately. Like a New Yorker or something. But I was still poor. Couldn't pull it off. Yet...that old magic of stamp abstraction into a world that didn't exactly exist still had some power to affect me.

1 comment:

  1. My grandfather the mathematician had an extensive stamp collection. Because of this, he'd send us stamps from England when he visited, Sweden, etc. I might still have a few carefully washed profiles of Queen Elizabeth floating around an album that has outlived all of my moves. There is something about stamps.