Untitled Icon – Catalogue Essay


Untitled Icon


Quentin S. Crisp

Related to an interest in collecting things, perhaps, is an interest in decay. The two combine in the collection of antiques, since often it is not good for the antique to look too new. On the other hand, an object is usually valued more if it is in good condition. The interest in ruin and decay itself, then, lies a little further along the spectrum than the interest in the old but well preserved.

But where does the devotee of decay search for treasures? Attics, perhaps, or basements—abandoned houses, certainly. Not all decaying things, though, convey the sense of gloomy enclosure associated with derelict buildings.

The object before me is square and roughly at its centre are two coloured circles, one inside the other. Someone of my age thinks immediately of a vinyl record. This was probably a seven-inch. Could it be an obscure Reggae release? Perhaps. When was it recorded? What sort of story do the lyrics tell? Are they factual or fantastical? Once, there was someone’s saliva on a microphone. Now no words are decipherable. There is only a sense of summer sunshine in the colours.

It is not only rain—the sun, too, is an agent of decay. It bleaches colours. It warps and it melts. I think of a strip of celluloid film being burnt by the sun’s rays as focused through a magnifying glass. I think also of ice lollies melting and dripping on a hot day. Ants gather at the coloured sugar on the tarmac.

The sleeve of this seven-inch record is turning back to pulp, losing its gloss and colour. And what is being released in this decay, like an incense of the spirit, is the nameless summer that was first concentrated in this object—that summer before the understanding of calendar date and time and the story of the lyrics of the song in the grooves of the vinyl. It is an ecstasy of release, a nostalgia of decomposition.

So where did the seeker after decay find such an object? Perhaps discarded enigmatically in a patch of brambles at the edge of a park. But parks are often damp, and this object looks desiccated. Maybe, then, it was found on the flat roof of an apartment block of some kind—a building now condemned—left behind with a cardboard box of other records and some laundry, now pale and stiff, in a plastic basket. I cannot quite picture at the moment an appropriate site for such a find—a find that makes you feel liberated with a sense of summery decay—yet I know that I have made such finds quite casually in the past.

Thinking about the nostalgia and liberation decay brings, I began to wonder why we do not feel the same thing in relation to the human body. The weathered and ruined record inspires daydreams as if the unique particularity of the object is reverting once more to potential. It is as if condensation into the particular and its evaporation back into potential is designed specifically for the generation of dreams. Decay is the outward-bound phase of the object’s fulfilment in the cosmos, and we have the ability to feel caressed by this process of fulfilment as bystanders.

When a human body decays, on the other hand, rather than being inspired to dream of all that the person meant, in particularity and in potential, we are filled with horror and revulsion. (Admittedly, I don’t know quite who ‘we’ are in this case.)

Why is this? There are two kinds of decay for an animal or human, it occurred to me—and to a lesser extent this is true of plants, too—the decay of age and the decay of death. In the decay of age, the subject still lives. A sensitive person, usually with some experience of life, can see the beauty of aging in similar terms, perhaps, to the beauty of a decaying object. But the beauty of a decaying corpse remains difficult. Is it easier if the corpse belongs to someone we don’t know, like a found object? A little easier, perhaps, but it seems likely there would only be a lessening of the horror and not an increase in daydreams.

Something else occurred to me—the decay of what was once living is marked by smell, often an overpowering smell.

Smell, I concluded, is one of the keys to understanding the difference between matter that passes through the stage of life, and inanimate matter. The decay of the former is different to that of the latter, if not categorically, at least recognisably.

Then I remembered in The Brothers Karamazov how the great test of Alyosha’s faith comes when the elder Zosima’s corpse begins to emit a foul odour of corruption in its coffin. But this odour is a catalyst. At first, Alyosha despairs. Later, visiting the coffin again, he has a vision. He goes out into the night, throws himself on the ground and embraces and kisses the earth.


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