A pocket guide to utopia. With notes from Nicholson Baker.

Info on Hannah Carlson.

Music featured in this episode:

"The Orchid and the Wasp," "ECTO-1," and "Blossom World," by Max Suechting

"Treasure," by So. Percussion and Matmos


Consider the desert island story. The castaway scenario. There’s a shipwreck. A man washes ashore. He’s so glad to be alive. But then he realizes, he’s doomed. He has no food, no clothes, no tools. It’s a literary problem as old as the expulsion from paradise: how can we talk about our naked dependence on stuff?

Hannah Carlson, a historian teaching material culture at the Rhode Island School of Design, told me about this funny literary quarrel that centers on the pockets of two shipwrecked men. First, there’s Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, who washes ashore with only a pocketknife, some tobacco, and a pipe.

HC: He looks around and says, “I’m alone, I have nothing.”

And he builds a farm and more, using the barest minimum of equipment.

HC: So we remember Robinson Crusoe for his almost MacGuyver-like ability to use and remake the world.

And then there’s Lemuel Gulliver, from Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels.

HC: The hapless Gulliver is also shipwrecked. But when he’s swimming ashore he carries practically a boatload of stuff on his person, and doesn’t even think to jettison any of it to save himself. He has a large sword, a set of pistols, a snuffbox, a diary, a comb, a razor, a set of eating utensils, a watch, a handkerchief, a pouch of gunpowder, a pouch of bullets, silver and copper money, several pieces of gold, a pair of spectacles, a pocket perspective—the list becomes absurd.

It’s civilization in a nutshell, civilization in a pocket.

HC: Swift is trying to satirize this idea that we could be prepared for any eventuality. That, alone, outside of social bonds, we could somehow have everything we need to make it.

Pockets let us forget humans’ essential nakedness, Swift seems to observe. Think of it this way. Empty your pockets. What do you have with you?

PG: A wallet. A phone. A pen. A sharpie. Some lip balm. A notebook. And about eighty cents in change.

The prospect of shipwreck may be terrifying, but try walking out your door with nothing in your pockets. What could we do without the stuff we carry? I, for one, would be helpless.

With empty pockets, I couldn’t do my job, but that’s just the beginning. I imagine myself strolling the streets of New Haven, unable to get into my apartment, unable to buy food, unable to phone for help, and perhaps most painful for me personally, unable to compulsively take notes, as is my habit. Without pockets, I couldn’t exercise my will on the world. So if the self I occupy, the person who can get around in the world, depends upon the contents of my pockets, what are pockets? Are they somehow part of my self?

The pocket began in the early sixteenth century, but these pockets were not the envelope shape we recognize. People would just cut holes in their pantaloons and sew in bags of irregular size. A pair of pants might have two pockets or ten. And when the pocket first came around, it frightened people. Before pockets, men wore daggers and pistols on their belts. Everyone could see them.

HC: Once you have pockets, you’re not carrying the much more gentlemanly visible weapon. If you have a pocket pistol, you are thought to be moving in secret with bad intentions.

France actually banned the pocket in the 1550s for this reason. Of course, pockets eventually became legal and widely popular, but this problem from the 1550s is essentially the contemporary problem of concealed carry. If we don’t know what’s in someone’s pockets, we can’t measure their capabilities, and it doesn’t take much imagination to feel quite unsafe oneself in a world where, outside one’s door, who knows how many pistols are bumping along the sidewalk in their owners’ pockets.

It’s not for nothing, Hannah told me, that the British psychoanalyst John Carl Flügel fixed on pockets as a symbol of society’s ills, when writing his 1930 book The Psychology of Clothes.

HC: He apparently was walking down the street—

He wanted to find something in his pockets—

HC: He couldn’t find it, and this made him reflect and count the number of pockets on his person. And he came up with something like 22 pockets.

And he thought, essentially, my god, I’m a walking pocket. It’s absurd how much I’m carrying.

HC: But he noted that pockets are necessary, that we need them.

Our society requires us to bear these personal chests-of-drawers on our bodies, to carry our keys, wallets, pocketwatches, diaries, combs, maybe even weapons—so, Flügel suggested, let’s change the terms of society.

HC: Turns out he’s actually advocating for the utter eradication of clothes.

He’s one of the utopian nudists of the 1920s.

HC: He believes we will be better off if we don’t have clothes to distinguish either sex or class, and that clothing has been, for humanity, something that holds us back. But, Flügel says, we’re still gonna need some kind of harness in which we’re going to carry the things that we require in civilized life.

At least until we’ve totally fixed civilization. Just seven years earlier, in 1923, H.G. Wells had published Men Like Gods, a work of utopian science fiction in which the environment is so well designed that everyone’s nude and no one needs a pocket.

HC: He imagines this world where people are zipping around in their airplanes and living this lovely life. Nobody has to carry money anymore. It’s a socialist utopia. Everybody is moving through this world in kind of an EZ-Pass system whereby every individual has some kind of credit card marker and you don’t have to plan ahead.

Society is so well engineered, so safe, that nudity isn’t nakedness.

HC: So that’s the sort of totalitarian vision of when nudism can work.

Toni Morrison also draws a connection between unencumbrance and an ideal society, though she doesn’t go quite so far as nudity. Milkman, the protagonist of Song of Solomon, arrives in the all-black community of Shalimar, Virginia—

HC: And he notices, “The women’s hands were empty. No pocketbook, no change purse, no wallet, no keys, no small paper bag, no comb, no handkerchief. They carried nothing. Milkman had never in his life seen a woman on the street without a purse slung over her shoulder, pressed under her arm, or dangling from her clenched fingers. These women walked as if they were going somewhere, but they carried nothing in their hands.”

In Morrison’s utopia, it’s the women in particular who walk unencumbered. It’s a pointed observation about the mobility denied to women precisely because gendered female clothing often lacks pockets. There’s the freedom to move without pockets, and then there’s the freedom to move with pockets, without a heavy purse. Pockets can be great. Just ask the writer Nicholson Baker. Unlike your utopian nudists, he does not see pockets as an affliction.

Nicholson Baker: I’m a pocket-loving guy. At any moment I got a couple pens—like why would you have just one pen? For a long time I tried to do everything with pockets.

He’d stuff his shirt pockets with notes he took during the day.

NB: And then at the bottom you’ll find, completely squashed and creased, is some ancient receipt on crinkly paper, for a transaction you’ve completely forgotten. So there’s all this history going on. And yet it seems as if you’re just striding unencumbered through the day.

He says he’s always found pockets an important way of thinking about the world, precisely because they represent the border between the world and the mind.

NB: And that’s what I think I like about the pocket metaphor, the pocketing of things. The prestidigitational trickery of being able to move things from the world of public visibility into a private place. It sort of feels to me like writing. Or I guess, what I like about writing, is that paragraphs take your most personal observations, or embarrassments sometimes, fantasies, whatever they are, and you fill them up, and it feels as if you’re putting them away or you’re stowing them, you’re pocketing them. But then because of the weird and wonderful act of publishing, you’re making public what you have hidden.

I thought of asking him about his pockets because his 1986 novel The Mezzanine, is very much about what we carry with us, both physically and not. This novel tells the story of the narrator’s escalator journey from the lobby to the mezzanine of his office building, back to work after lunch. But in Nick’s hands this journey of maybe a minute expands into chapter after chapter, meandering through time and space, rendering the diverse contents of the mind. In one passage that I love, this narrator imagines the day’s end, when he’ll finally undress and empty his bulging pockets. Here’s Nick reading that scene:

NB: “[We] begin to pull handfuls of change and stubs of Velamints packs out of our pockets, forced to lean forward slightly in order to cup all the unwanted coinage we have collected from the world that day because we have lazily used whole bills for every transaction, dropping the warm change and keys and cash machine receipts and litter into a saucer that is already overflowing with change, and then assuming another special contrapposto pose to pull out the wallet, whose moist bulk was a subliminal bother all day, although we weren’t able to pinpoint our discomfort until now, as we drop the slightly sticky lump of leather and plastic on top of the sliding mound of change and feel one whole cheek of our ass instantly cool down, relieved of ten hours of this remorid propinquity."

Nick told me this scene is about as autobiographical as can be. He often finds his own bureau covered with formerly pocketed items.

NB: This horrendous shrine of stuff that poured out of me. And the receipts form this kind of strange crinkly pile, and then there’re the shirt pocket notes, for me, and those form a huge pile, eventually, and all the other, just, stuff. Business cards people give me. And I just hate the look of it, but it’s me.

One day, looking at the stuff of which he’d unburdened himself, he thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to look at this cluttered bureau as another sort of pocket? A meta-pocket, maybe?

NB: A kind of ultra-pocket, some sort of super-pocket of my life.

So, on a few occasions, he’s swept everything on the bureau into a white box—

NB: and they’re not that many, it’s a stack, maybe five little boxes from Staples, taped up with the date that I packed it up, written outside.

And he’s placed all these boxes in his storage unit alongside his manuscripts and research books.

NB: So it’s just like everything is going to an even bigger ur-pocket that’s rented somewhere, that’s still on me, you know? It’s still part of me, in a way.

PG: Wow. So what do you think you’ll do with the boxes? If anything.

NB: Nothing. I don’t think, anything. I suppose—I don’t know! It’s an archive that has no use to me or to anyone else. Probably I’ll just, at some point, when I’m feeling strong, I’ll just, I’ll just toss them out. But not until I’ve looked at some of those shirt-pocket notes one more time. The thing that first came to my mind when you emailed me was what Gollum said. “What has he got in his pocketses?”

As a kid, Nick was fascinated by this scene from The Hobbit, the exchange of riddles between Gollum and the hero, Bilbo Baggins, who all the while is holding Gollum’s lost magic ring in his pocket—

NB: fingering this secret, powerful ring

—that Gollum can sense but not see.

NB: “What has he got in his pocketses?” I guess that’s the curious thing. What have you got in your pockets? What secrets do you have? What little magic rings are you hiding? Embarrassments, or records of your life? What’s on your cash machine receipt? That’s the appeal or romance of pockets, maybe.

PG: Yeah, yeah, and it’s a direct line there in a way that few material things in the world—except, maybe, kind of, novels—actually do. You can’t know what’s going on inside someone’s head, but you can look in their pockets.

NB: Yeah. Yes. What pockets allow you to do is that, you get to arrange the kind of internal architecture of your bodily, your mental, bodily room. If I were a nudist, I’d need some kind of Boromir’s-hunting-horn-shaped thing. I would need some sort of pseudo-pocket or something that would hang casually to one side, that would hold, I don’t know what. Sunscreen, a couple quarters.

What would we be without our pockets? Would pocketlessness make us happier? Less happy? Could it make us more moral? I contacted the people who ought to know best: the nudists. Specifically, I reached out to the American Nudist Research Library at the Cypress Cove nudist resort.

PG: I’m curious a little bit about what may seem to you like the dull stuff. Like if you’re in a nudist situation, what do you do with your wallet and your keys and phone.

E: I lock my wallet in my car unless I need to go to the gift shop or the restaurant here. We have a place called Cheeks.

But as it turns out, not even nudists are totally unencumbered, or totally naked.

E: If you’re here at the pool, or you’re playing volleyball or something, you might have your shoes on, your socks, at least. If you’re at the pool you’re going to have a towel. You almost never see anyone walking around Cypress Cove, for example, here, completely nude. They at least have shoes or they have a towel slung over their shoulder. Women will have a bag of some kind. You never actually see somebody completely nude without something at hand.

PG: Wow. So you can never really escape the need to have stuff.

E: You know, that—you’re right. If I see somebody walking around out here completely nude, not without anything, you kind of notice. Like, oh, they don’t have anything!

Ed handed the phone to Becky, a former schoolteacher.

Becky: My husband has what he calls a “portable pocket.” He bought it a naturist venue somewhere. Somebody handmade it. It’s basically a small, over-the-shoulder bag, just kind of big enough for keys and a wallet. So he often walks around beaches and places like that with his portable pocket.

Becky said the best simulation of a nudist society is a nude cruise, where everyone onboard is nude except the crew.

B: On the nude cruise, many people keep their room key and their credit card or a little cash or a cell phone, in a lanyard that they wear on their neck. And they tend to give them out on the cruise, for free. It’s usually see-thru, but I see other people might have been more creative, they might make their own. But it’s just a small item, not too heavy, but it might be big enough for your small cell phone, for your room key. A credit card. A little cash. And most people keep that on their neck all day. Some of the ones I’ve received are waterproof. So you swim with it. You know? You never take it off.

PG: Do you ever see anyone who has, who has nothing?

B: Absolutely, yes you do. There are many—what I would call the die-hard nudists. They don’t care how cold it is. I would call my husband a die-hard nudist. If he can be nude at any time he totally is going to be. But somebody has to carry the room key. It’s kind of like if you’re with a pair, it’s a lot simpler to have nothing. So sometimes I’m carrying the stuff.

Becky herself becomes the pocket in this situation.

B: I’ll tell you one thing I have found. In nude resorts, on nude beaches, and on nude cruises, I don’t worry about theft. Maybe I should, but I don’t. It seems like there’s some kind of unwritten rule that people are honest. I’ve been known to leave my Kindle, my iPhone 6, my wallet, my car keys, in a bag. It’s not out visible, but in a bag, on a chair, and I’m an hour in the pool or the hot tub. I’m not watching that bag. I’ve never had anything stolen. So people tend to do leave things around. But they feel safe.

PG: Wow, why do you think that is?

B: I just think that in general naturists are an open and honest group of people. Because how are you hiding anything? Maybe I shouldn’t feel that way, but I do. And I’ve never had anything stolen. Nobody has led me to feel any other kind of way yet. I think if you ask nudists, they will say that being nude and having conversations with other people opens you up to a level of familiarity and comfort that you’re not gonna find when you see people with clothes. Because you don’t know what they got in their pockets. You don’t know what they may be hiding. People can hide behind their clothes. And when you’re naked and you’re talking to strangers, you got nothing to hide.

So are nudists truly more moral than the rest of us? I don’t know. But even as pockets conceal, they reveal. And there are two powerful examples of this. I’ve been thinking a lot about them. At the Library of Congress, in Washington DC,

HC: The objects that visitors most request to see are the contents of Lincoln’s pockets when he was assassinated at the Ford Theater. He had a linen pocket handkerchief. A pocket knife. A watch fob. Although no watch. A recently worthless five-dollar Confederate bill. And a number of newspaper articles, many of which included favorable reviews of his presidential candidacy.

NB: It just happens that his life ended right there, with a, a flash, and so caught in the flashbulb of time are the things that he chose to have closest to his body.

HC: They suggest something really human about where he thought his attention might go. Maybe he thought he was going to be bored in the theater and wanted to reread his reviews.

NB: That strange shiver that you get because we know what was in his pockets is because of that sudden collision of the public and private spheres. There’s a little release of energy there.

HC: I think it reveals this belief that the objects we carry somehow speak a kind of truth. A truth about the person that isn’t indicated in the record. We have Lincoln’s speeches but we want access to him—some kind of unmediated access to the real Lincoln. The stuff that we carry is this funny, disorderly mess. Important stuff and junk, all together. It’s a temporary collection. We think about our houses, about libraries and museums. These are all collections that indicate either something about the person or about what the culture values.

And then there’s the little collections, or not-so-little collections, that we carry with us, things that are generally unconsequential until suddenly, they aren’t. I think of Lincoln and then I think of the cigarette lighter, the earphones, the can of juice, the cash, and the bag of Skittles all in Trayvon Martin’s pockets on the night he was killed. According to a representative of the Trayvon Martin Foundation, those objects have now made their way through the justice system, back to Martin’s family. They have no plans, positively or negatively, to display them.

It’s worth considering who maintains the right to conceal whatever they choose, to travel safely in public places. We’re far from the sort of society in which we all move with equivalent unencumbrance, pocketless or no. Here’s hoping someday we get there.

Episode 4: Pockets

March 21, 2016