History is full of people with remarkable gifts, with talents and abilities that defy explanation, but these can become all-consuming obsessions that lead people to ruin.
Despite the number of sources from which the evidence is drawn, both primary and secondary, the story of Nebuchadnezzar can feel like a tangle of unintended contradictions. Apparent anachronisms abound, from cultural and artistic influences that meet and merge early than conventional wisdom would allow to scientific insights that are perhaps stranger than Da Vinci’s designs for a precursor to the modern helicopter. We know that Nebuchadnezzar, a skilled linguist, arrived in Constantinople sometime in 940 CE and soon found work as an ad hoc translator and trade liaison at the city’s ports. But this role, which merited him a brief mention in The Book of the Eparch, merely kept him in food and lodgings. It was his particular and peculiar papercraft that made him rich, infamous and, in a certain sense, immortal.
Although paper was still relatively uncommon and expensive, even in Constantinople, Nebuchadnezzar had seen it being used for origami during his travels and become fascinated with the art. Taking part payment for his work in whatever scraps of paper he could lay his hands on, he took it up as a hobby. At first he made basic forms and shapes, animals and flowers from paper he folded and refolded dozens of times, but even those inert forms were described as having a strange presence, of being more real than they should, by rights, have been. Then he began to experiment with designs of his own, working with a respect for the only context in which he had known origami - its religious and ritualistic place as was established in seventh century Japan.
His hobby became his obsession, the desire to create becoming the need to create something new. New design ideas came to him at all times of the day, bled from the aether into his dreams and his nightmares, and he began to bring them to life. At first his work merely strained credulity: Paper animals with enough motive force that they would scurry and gambol for a few seconds after they were folded, flowers that one could swear were perfumed with the scents of the blooms they were fashioned after. But Nebuchadnezzar had a talent beyond even his own understanding, intention imbued into work that should not have worked, and eventually his invention brought him to the creation of things that defied sense and science, both contemporary and modern. First and most prominent amongst these? Echo boxes.
Each built from single sheets of paper, Nebuchadnezzar’s echo boxes were relatively simple in construction and appeared to be basic paper cubes, the likes of which we might now find instructions for in any library. They differed, however, in that they captured the sounds in the room - including voices - during their construction. They took only a minute or so to craft but, if they were opened up afterwards, they echoed back - once - any conversations or noises that had taken place. Directions for their creation, freely given, and simple enough to follow for those with even a hint of the necessary knack and canny, nonetheless produced inert imitations of the work that Nebuchadnezzar was capable of creating. Not science then, but perhaps a kind of sorcery that has, per some of the several competing and contradictory thaumatological taxonomies, been classed as pragmagic.
As the portmanteau suggests, this is a form of the art which runs on a very simple premise and a somewhat-childlike perspective on the connections between what is and, as a result, what should be. In the case of the echo boxes the magical thinking goes as follows: You can put things in a box and, when you open the box, they are still in there, so if you speak into and close a box up, your words should still be there. The thought process is similar to that used by adherents to The Order of The Door but obviously, and as the failure of others to replicate Nebuchadnezzar’s work indicates, the unknown and inexplicable element that bridges the (often wrongheaded) idea and it working is not one immediately recognisable nor easily reproduceable.
Nebuchadnezzar’s quiet celebrity grew as each new impossible origami invention came to life; a paper aviary, the paper candles that would produce light with only the representation of a flame, even a functional prosthetic eye are noted in his accomplishments. Nevertheless, he remained unsatisfied by his progress, by the limits of his access to the basic material of his craft and the sense that he would not live to see the grand scale of his vision come to pass. This fear was exacerbated by a mysterious sickness, perhaps psychosomatically conjured from the same source of power that made his work possible, into which he lapsed and recovered time and time again. This infirmity, the uncertainty of his failing health, pushed an incredible, incomparable man to turn his considerable talents to solipsism, to search for a way to outlast his mortal form.
Nebuchadnezzar on Paper was the only and the obvious solution: Autobiography as automaton, a thinking machine that would assume the responsibility for the continuation of work that it would feel as much of a connection to as Nebuchadnezzar ever had. In procuring supplies and preparing for his final project he ruined himself in a matter of months, taking so little care of the life and the body he had already given up on that it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. To his mind it was worthwhile and the experimentation began: An attempt to reduce a person to a repeating, recursive pattern that can be expanded into an entire consciousness. The self as a fractal pattern of folds and symmetries drawn vividly in the creases of paper pressed down with a faltering touch.
He gave his creation a beating heart of verse, the map becoming the territory, and spoke all his words and his experiences into a nest of tangled paper synapses, becoming weaker and weaker as he shared more and more of his essence. Soon after finishing, Nebuchadnezzar died in the arms of his creation: Nebuchadnezzar on Paper, but when the people of Constantinople saw this new marvel, their wonder turned to fear. The face of Nebuchadnezzar’s immortality was as sharp as a papercut, all softness lost in the translation, transliteration, from person to paper, and so they came with torches, intent on burning the whole workshop down. Later, as they picked through ash and ember and reassured themselves that everything unnatural had been destroyed, they realised that no-one had actually seen Nebuchadnezzar on Paper burn, and that they could not say for certain what any particular pile of ashes were the remains of.