Research Notes · 02/21/2014

Humboldt, or The Power of Positive Thinking

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Scott Navicky writes about Humboldt: Or, the Power of Positive Thinking from CCLaP Publishing.



When my publisher first floated the idea of doing an annotated edition of my debut novel, a creative misreading of Voltaire’s Candide, or Optimism, I acted surprised; but in truth, I wasn’t surprised at all. I knew that if my novel was ever to be published, I would sooner or later have to deal with the issue of all of my — what should I call them? — allusions? [No, that’s not quite right.] References? [That sounds rather stiff.] Unquoted quotations? [Wow, that’s awkward!]

After much dithering, I finally settled on the phrase “scissors and paste” bits. (In a similar vein, I dubbed my unique spelling tendencies: “portmantypos.”) Of course, even this phrase isn’t original: it’s pinched from James Joyce, who once declared that he was “quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors and paste man.”

Of course, there’s another word for such literary borrowing; it’s an ugly word that begins with P. (If anyone is interested in the perils of such behavior, I recommend Lizzie Widdicombe’s article The Plagiarist’s Tale (The New Yorker, February 13, 2012). And the funny/scary thing is: while living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I knew that guy!)

As I diligently began working on my footnotes, I comforted myself with the thought that my “scissors and paste” bits weren’t really plagiarrr…[I can’t even bring myself to say the word!] since no thief would dare announce his thievery with such brazen straightforwardness. After all, my novel’s very first line of dialogue comes from an angry librarian who has caught the main character, Humboldt, absentmindedly attempting to walk out of the Winesburg branch of the Holmes County Library with a copy of Winesburg, Ohio. “YOU CAN’T STEAL WHAT SOMEONE ELSE HAS WRITTEN!!!” this librarian screams.

And later in the novel, within a dream sequence, James Joyce himself appears in the guise of Constantine P. Curran’s famous 1904 photograph to accuse Humboldt of stealing from him: “Words, my writing style, entire passages! All stolen from me!”

Humboldt responds to this accusation awkwardly. After reassuring the “iratishman” that his grievance would be handled promptly and professionally, Humboldt tactfully reminds him:

But, please keep in mind, we are reconquering the Old World here and that’s no easy task. Things inevitably get stolen. You won’t believe how many pens and boxes of paperclips disappeared during the Reconquista. Hell, an entire squadron of staplers was pinched during the siege of Vienna. And we once caught an Arab gentleman and his Janissary friends attempting to wheel a full-sized copier out of the back door of the Hagia Sophia. It was, as I’m sure you can imagine, quite the scandal.

And so with stoic resolve, I began my task of footnoting. The majority of my “scissors and paste” bits were easy to find: I keep a small, focused library (Joyce, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Harold Bloom) and a large, unfocused quote notebook (Barthes, Foucault, Anne Carson, more Harold Bloom). I also live around the corner from a gigantic bookstore, where I bought copies of Candide, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and The Anatomy of Influence. For everything else, I used the local library (John Kennedy Toole, Mark Twain, and yes: even more Harold Bloom). Okay, not everything else: I also used Wikipedia. (Gasp! if you want, but there was no way that I was going to read the full score for Wagner’s Das Rheingold just to make one joke about Wotan offering his sister-in-law as payment to his building contractors!)

To maintain the momentum, I started making notes to myself. As months passed, these notes accumulated around my apartment with reckless abandon. It was not uncommon for me to pick up a piece of scrap paper with the intention of starting a grocery list and read a question like: “Was Nietzsche a virgin?” WHAT?! How was I supposed to remember to buy grapefruit, yoghurt, and Effie’s Oatcakes with THAT question swirling around my consciousness?

The more time I spent researching, the stranger my footnotes became. One footnote involved a highway scavenger hunt; another referenced an old poem I wrote about John Ruskin’s wedding night. I also found myself footnoting things that I didn’t know; for example, I can’t tell you a single thing about Fulcher of Chartres. He is the only reference in the book that I know absolutely nothing about. I simply needed a funny medieval name, so I looked in my old Arts and Humanities textbook and found his.

The single most difficult “scissors and paste” bit to footnote was the quote “all that is mine I carry with me.” I knew of this quote because it was once written on the inside cover of a small notebook that I used to carry around with me when I lived in Brooklyn. But, of course, that was years ago, and that particular notebook is long gone. Google is great for a great many things, but finding quotes from the Roman Empire is not one of them. After much searching, I was able to successfully assign the quote to the ancient Roman philosopher Bias of Priene. I finally unearthed the entire passage buried in a website devoted to Cicero’s Paradoxa. (And I thought my wordpress blog was underappreciated; just think about how many hits that poor website gets daily!)

I finished my final footnote on New Year’s Eve. While my friends were out drinking copious amounts of champagne while wearing funnylooking cardboard hats, I was diligently scanning my Master’s thesis in an attempt to discover in what book Nietzsche announced the need for “new terms for new ideas.” (Don’t feel sorry for me for having such a lame NYE: I was in nerdheaven!) As the clock neared midnight, I finally realized why I was having so much trouble identifying this quote: it isn’t actually by Nietzsche, but rather about Nietzsche. The quote is actually from Gilles Deleuze’s Nietzsche & Philosophy, which is a fabulous read, although it’s no help whatsoever in solving the mystery of Nietzsche’s suspected virginity. (C’mon, he had to be! When would he have lost it?)

With this discovery, my footnoting quest came to an end. The final wordcount for my footnotes hovered just under my Master’s thesis. The entire process took eleven months. I’m embarrassed to admit that this was substantially more time than it took me to write my novel. I would like to say that my footnotingfootnotingfootnoting was a heroic endeavor, but really it wasn’t, especially when you think that, in the same allotment of time, Nietzsche dashed off The Wagner Case, Twilight of the Idols, The Antichrist, Ecce Homo, and Nietzsche Contra Wagner. (Hmm…I wonder why he had so much free time?)

Was it worth the effort? Of course, it was. Make it new? Why would anyone want to waste their time doing that when they could just as easily be reconquering the Old World?


Scott Navicky has an Honors Master’s Degree in art history with a focus on photography theory from the University of Auckland. He has lived in New York City, Auckland, Boston, Brooklyn, and Portland, Maine. He currently lives in Columbus, Ohio. Humboldt, or The Power of Positive Thinking is his first novel.