I just got a memo this morning that claims to be "From the desk of… well never you mind, you know how I always try to avoid embarrassing people in these essays"---and fighting down, with amazingly mature restraint, my immediate reaction to reply "Dear desk, would you please tell your damned owner to send his own bloody memos, and while I’m at it, I rather resent being addressed in such familiar terms by inanimate objects, especially when they are collections of cheap tin, particle board and imitation formica held together with too few screws!"… when I suddenly thought: Why?
Why on earth do otherwise fairly normal and apparently sane persons send out little notes imprinted across the top, or bottom for that matter, with for example, "From the desk of Reginald Mammoth" or even worse "From the desk of dot dot dot" with a name hastily, and obviously temporarily, scrawled more or less after the final dot, presumably by a desk that doesn’t expect the bearer of the name to hang about for too long.
Is this yet another example of all too pervasive official pretension? Is there indeed a wistful implication lurking in there that---modesty forbids, but it should really read "From the actual desk of the Great Man, Woman or Secretary---I ...I mean Administrative Assistant."
And how long has this been going on? After conferring with some of my older colleagues, I have decided it must be an ancient practice, and that I must do some research.
Well that didn't take long!
Here are my results. The From-the-desk memo is truly of great antiquity, possibly even antedating the invention of writing; there is considerable evidence, for example, that some of the prehistoric megaliths of Europe were actually vast ritual stone desks; then by at least the 4th century BC the great Greek Oracle at Delphoi, the motto of which we should bear in mind was "ΓΝΩΘΙ ΣΕAΥΤΟΝ: Know thyself," was handing down its cryptic messages from the gods under the superscript "From the κιστη1 of Apollo"; the Romans, with their slightly different way of doing business were in the habit of sending fateful memos (often involving menus and Christians and Lions, and the clearing up of all that confusion from last time about just exactly who was supposed to be on whose) "From the hot tub of Nero" and so on; through King Arthur’s famous "From the round table of…", through the Dark Ages when it was far too dark to see to write and the practice fell into disuse, to its emergence in the light of the high middle ages with "de scriptoriis de..." to its final, final rebirth with the renaissance.
So you can see that, far from pretension, we have here one of the most enduring, the most basic drives in mankind’s turbulent history. When we send each other memos "From the desk of…" we are dimly and falteringly probing, in our mundane way, a brilliant insight: that the desk is the man. It holds his aspirations, his hopes; his out-tray home to his successes; stalking his in-tray his fears; sucked into his blotter his whole history, his self, his soul! When we receive a message "From the desk of…" we know we can believe it, we know that here a soul is being bared, that here is a true crie de coeur. As Alexander Pope wrote somewhere (I think it was in his Epistle on Man2),
Search then the roll-top bureau: there, alone, And it’s true you know!
The wild are constant, and the cunning known;
Or, rather, it was true: from the beginning of time until but a blink of an eye ago it was the great Truth of the Office; whether the desk in question was in Imhotep's site office in ancient Egypt, or in the bowels of One Auction Avenue in Memphis Tennessee, it was! Ahh but now, well to take me as an example, like so many today, I don't even have a desk to send a memo from, but instead I have to make do with a computer and a wraparound pangaea of 'working surfaces' from which I occasionally surface for a gasp of the dim air of my cubicle before plunging back down into the abyss again.
So there you have it, now we poor sods are being reduced to mere e-mails, or worse instant messages and are thrall to the lying, inconstant electron and so bit by bit we electrocute our souls.
Cheerio for now
from the desk of
"... kiste of Apollo" in the more peripatetic world of the Greek office-dweller much of the function and all of the kudos of the desk was carried by this humble device.
2 Roll-top Bureau
"... the roll-top bureau: there, alone" I might possibly be mis-remembering this quotation. Anyway the original is here
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