‘Ragtime’ by Anaïs Nin

The ragpicker worked in silence and never looked at anything that was whole. His eyes sought the broken, the worn, the faded, the fragmented. A complete object made him sad. What could one do with a complete object? Put it in a museum. Not touch it. But a torn paper, a shoelace without its double, a cup without saucer, that was stirring. They could be transformed, melted into something else. A twisted piece of pipe. Wonderful, this basket without a handle. Wonderful, this bottle without a stopper. Wonderful, the box without a key. Wonderful, half a dress, the ribbon off a hat, a fan with a feather missing. Wonderful, the camera plate without the camera, the lone bicycle wheel, half a phonograph disk. Fragments, incomplete worlds, rags, detritus, the end of objects, and the beginning of transmutations.

Of the pieces in Under a Glass Bell, the collection ‘Ragtime’ comes from, Nin explained: “These stories represent the moment when many like myself had found only one answer to the suffering of the world: to dream, to tell fairytales, to elaborate and to follow the labyrinth of fantasy. All this I see now was the passive poet’s only answer to the torments he witnessed…” Adrift in a mostly plotless story, Nin’s narrator visits a ragpickers’ camp on the outskirts of Paris and catalogues the detritus. I fell in love with this surreal, ephemeral dream as a teen, and unlike many of my other teenage loves, it has stayed with me. There is a certain melancholic romance in seeking the broken, the worn, the faded, the fragmented, in recognizing that “Nothing is lost but it changes.” 

First published in Nin’s collection Under a Glass Bell, 1948, Swallow Press, and available in audio form, read by the author herself, on YouTube

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