It is coming down from all points, laundry tickets, envelopes swiped from the office, there are crushed cigarette packs and sticky wrap from ice-cream sandwiches, pages from memo pads and pocket calendars, they are throwing faded dollar bills, snapshots torn to pieces, ruffled paper swaddles for cupcakes, they are tearing up letters they’ve been carrying around for years pressed into their wallets, the residue of love affairs and college friendships, it is happy garbage now, the fans’ intimate wish to be connected to the event, unendably, in the form of pocket litter, personal waste, a thing that carries a shadow identity…

—from the Prologue to Underworld by Don Delillo


When I was younger I used to pick up random bits of paper I saw on the ground. Folded in on themselves or jotted with random print, they concealed imputed love letters or mysterious code (secrets, essentially) but more likely contained shopping lists; losing lottery combinations; the unwanted corner of a magazine; nothing. Despite the disappointment this wistful habit usually brings, I still find myself drawn to unravel anything tightly folded or hand-scrawled: the untreasured personal trinkets that might start me imagining a story or give an accidental window – however miniscule – into an alien life.

The immersive theatre company Punchdrunk trades in the curiosity of random, secret papers. Their shows, which normally involve roaming freely in masks through multi-storey sets, are all about which doors you open and which drawers you rifle through. At their production of The Masque of the Red Death you could spend hours alone in an antique bedroom, reading a hand-written diary and perusing old letters. In their most recent show The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable there were ‘confidential’ medical ledgers left open in dim offices. I was whisked into a shady corner by a man who whispered to me the about the secrets of life in show business and entrusted me with a piece of paper he had folded to make an ink butterfly. Needless to say I was loving it, and the thing is still tucked and fraying in a coat pocket somewhere.

And the Punchdrunk paper chain extends outside their makeshift theatre walls. In last summer’s Time Out, ‘Readers who followed clues planted in the magazine and Time Out blog over the last few weeks were led to a website where they could sign up for membership of The Black Room, a secret society […] A lucky few were instructed to give a secret password to a Time Out vendor and meet a shady stranger in the crowd. They were then presented with a one-on-one show amid the morning commute’. In July this year, Jack White performed a secret medical themed gig with Punchdrunk, in which audience members filled out forms supposed to sign away their internal organs, participated in an experiment where they wrote down on slips of paper how different tracks made them feel and received ‘Prescriptions from Jack’ offering esoteric medical advice. It’s a veritable wheelie bin of theatrical fairy dust, both real – but recyclable – and imagined.

With diaries and official documents, the secrecy and value is palpable (according to whom they concern) but what of the other paraphernalia we cannot bear to part with? Ancient schoolwork, post-it notes and letters, magazine articles, aeroplane tickets and business cards; I suspect everyone has their own pile, of a size dependent on some ratio of their sentimentality versus their organisational faculties versus their home storage capacity. As with Punchdrunk’s messages and medical forms, this clinging onto bits of paper is less an end in itself and more a means to imaginative stimulation or nostalgia.

According to clinical studies nostalgia is like medicine for the brain: when we look back at mementoes from the past it can improve our mood and boost our self-esteem and social bonds. A psychologist called Clay Routledge says: “Nostalgia is a way for us to tap into the past experiences that we have that are quite meaningful—to remind us that our lives are worthwhile.” This seems particularly pertinent to memories connected with paper when everyone is freaking out about books becoming obsolete and things like hand-written letters are gradually becoming more anachronistic. To be fair, you know it’s got serious when even origami isn’t safe.

There is something especially vulnerable about a treasured piece of paper, because it can so easily be destroyed, and perhaps something especially intimate about another person’s papers. A certain sort of privacy subsists in piles of paper that our internet histories and hard drives can’t sustain, since they are both easily discoverable (they can be tracked, downloaded, copied) and also hard to find or unwrap incidentally, out of context. On an undated scrap of paper included in his collected Journals Kurt Cobain writes ‘Don’t read my diary when I’m gone. OK, I’m going to work now, when you wake up this morning, please read my diary. Look through my things, and figure me out.’ The very ambivalence of Cobain’s voice seems like a clue, an uncensored glimpse into a person we want to make real.

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—Bruegel, The Triumph of Death, 1562

In Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire there’s a great scene where Stanley, preoccupied by the papers detailing the loss of his wife’s family estate, comes across another secret sheaf of old notes. Blanche’s ‘love letters, yellowing with antiquity […] Poems a dead boy wrote.’ Stanley doesn’t care about the love tokens and Blanche gives up the legal papers with alacrity. Yet as the play progresses, it is the secrets of Blanche’s tangled love life that eke out Stanley’s curiosity. Just as Belle Reve, the estate, is reduced to ‘this bunch of old papers in [Stanley’s] big, capable hands’, Blanche’s façade is shredded, until she is no more than a cipher—a lost piece of poetry drifting out of context and, ultimately, out of the world. Blanche symbolises the magical tension between paper discarded and paper kept: only a kept secret can retain its allure, but only a lost one lets us in. Those slips of paper dropped from the precious hoard are the ones we want to leap on; they hold the inimical appeal of the unintended paper trail.

Following said trail to it’s logical conclusion: what of the really pointless paper: the rubbish, garbage, trash? The stuff we throw away on purpose—so that some semi-intrusive, daydreaming cruiser/creep like me can pick it up again. At this point, my purse plays host to an Ace of Spades playing card I found on the street when I was eighteen; the instructive piece of paper I was given about cleaning a tattoo when I was sixteen; a fortune I got from a cookie when I was twenty (although my furtive sense of undisclosed magic forbids me to write here what it says). Yet I’m well aware all this stuff belongs in the bin.

In Don Delillo’s Underworld one of the running tropes is waste. The prologue – a particularly effective twill of three parallel narratives at a baseball game – is entitled ‘The Triumph of Death’. This is after the Pieter Bruegel painting (pictured above), which falls on J. Edgar Hoover when a man in the upper deck of the stadium starts tearing pages out of his Life magazine, and throwing them over the stands. ‘Jedgar’ is transfixed by the reproduction of the violent painting. It triggers in him an admission of his love for death and destruction everywhere in the world. He wonders: ‘What secret history are they writing?’ since for every bomb detonated and every death seen splattered, ‘a hundred plots go underground’.

Just like the painting and the bomb plot, the mystery of the lost piece of paper is in its incompleteness. It is a picture of many thoughts gone underground. Whether we thrill in Punchdrunk’s made up magic, the letters and lives of others or the significance we impose upon a random piece of rubbish, most people have a scrap they couldn’t bear to part with. What is thrown can also be gathered and what is forgotten can be remembered—although by the time this happens the thing itself might have completely changed its meaning. In his Journals, Cobain writes: ‘I use bits and pieces of others personalities to form my own.’ When we read this sentence, or even all of his private musings put together, we are seeing only one piece.

In fine Delillo form, the passage that opened this article seems to sum the whole thing up neatly, if not briefly. Even as we live the life immediately before us, it is the ‘shadow identity’ of stranger, friend or even ourselves in the past that we can’t help but want to know. Through nostalgia or through the implicit paper chain, we are all a bit like the Delillo’s man throwing the magazine pages, chucking out and picking up paper because: ‘It brings him into contact with the other paper throwers and with the fans in the lower deck who reach for his pages and catch them.’