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Published: Tue Jul 1 2003
Eva Lundsager, We are quiet (nowhere to hide) (detail), 2021, oil on canvas
Objects and Digressions

A blue dinosaur that a toy designer I dated courtesy of match.com gave me. An elegant little green purse—chock full of nickels, dimes and pennies when it opens its fish-like mouth—that my mother gave me. A small wooden chest (actually a box but it looks like a chest) I procured from K-mart. Ensconced on the corner table; blue, green, wood; plastic skin, metal mouth, rectangular footprint: objects.

I like dead German men. In my gedankenexperimenten as also tangible experiences, they have proven to be more amusing and trustworthy than the live ones (German, Indian, Italian, American and males of other nationalities) that I’ve encountered. The potent language and the sparkling thoughts naturally make Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche or Heinrich Von Kleist intellectually amusing. And being dead allows them to be extraordinarily reliable in a way that their live counterparts rarely could be, since inability to set expectations and make promises ensures that they never break promises. One of these stimulating dead, Rainer Maria Rilke, says in one of his Elegies, “Angel and Puppet: a real play, finally.”

According to the translator’s note, Rilke’s Fourth Elegy was inspired by an essay of Kleist’s titled “Puppentheater” (Puppet Theater). In “Puppentheater” Kleist, through his protagonist Herr C., discourses on the infinite grace of inanimate objects. He explains that objects, unlike people, need not behave affectedly. He says the marionette, unfettered by the need to touch the ground (since it’s strumming to the tune of strings pulled from the top), is far more graceful than the human dancer. Only a god or possibly an animal such as a bear, Herr C. proclaims, could equal the grace of inanimate matter, whereas humans are clumsy, weighed down by consciousness.

I agree with Kleist about the clumsy humans with their haphazard and crude consciousness as opposed to the purportedly enlightened and all-encompassing consciousness of a god or a Buddha. And verily the animals will not find me lacking in regard or admiration of their grace. As for inanimate matter. Objects.

A flip through the “Spring Gift Guide” in a recent issue of The Improper Bostonian reveals Gurgling Cods, a Silverplate Computer Mouse and a Kindness Paperweight. The square brick-ish paperweight with an altruistic cliché inscribed on it I concede may be a vital instrument to keep on one’s desk in case there should arise a compelling need to hurl a miniature gravestone at someone. However, I completely fail to divine any inherent grace in the silverplate mouse or the gurgling cod pitchers. One need not look hard to find other objects of absurdity or grotesqueness. The SkyMall of Delta Airline exhibits a fine collection including a Pet Water Fountain and a Kramer poster. And, certainly, there is no dearth of absurd and cute objects either. The Talking Duck Soap Dispenser advertised in the Brooks Pharmacy catalog is a good example.

I too have my fair share of collected objects—the blue dinosaur, the green purse, and the wooden box share table-space with a couple of candle holders and a magnetic poetry kit. Not to mention a ViewMaster slide viewer picked up at some technology seminar and that ought to be trashed since the slides are advertising junk, but has not been trashed as yet since a ViewMaster is a cool toy. Objects clutter.

But surely if we discount the likes of the Talking Duck Soap Dispenser, which are in any case anomalies in the object kingdom, objects at least redeem themselves by being silent and still, and there is grace in that. In my bookcase I have a small replica of Rodin’s The Thinker. Naked but huddled, meditating on a rock—composed; although of course touching the Thinker I can feel the passion of Rodin’s strokes. On the other side of the bookcase is a lean brass figure walking and beating a drum. This figurine was recently procured from The Bombay Store in Mumbai, India, but with its bull-head, long nose, leafy ears and curvaceous horns, plus a human torso, bare marching feet with a hint of anklets on them, and drum slung around its waist, it has Dionysian connotations for me. And verily this Dionysian bull is marching right towards the Thinker. An excellent example of an object making mischief!

The Thinker contemplating in a bookcase, the bouncing ball lurking in a corner of the room. How nonchalant they appear at first glance, going about their business, merely absorbing and reflecting some sun or lamplight that comes their way. Surely these are respectable objects of impeccable conduct? Yet the bouncing ball is only waiting in ambush: at the slightest opportunity it will trip and trick a foot into indulging it in a spin. And those objects that at first blush seem idle and innocuous are actually at all times quite busy absorbing and reflecting the hopes, dreams, memories, and anguishes of the humanoids around them. Entities like The Thinker in my bookcase wear the emotions and ideas of their illustrious creators and of entire civilizations like a perfume or halo that’s mildly present. Additionally, they feel free to, like other personal or household objects, wear the translucent garment of their owner’s personal emotions and connotations. Objects have flavor and histories. The phrase “symbols of the depths within us” comes to mind.

We have by now established that objects clutter. And while prima facie they remain inert and innocent, reflecting sunlight or lamplight, providing the utilitarian or aesthetic value for which they were created, manufactured, acquired or bought and sold, they also imbibe assorted emotions and feel free to exude this acquired aura. What else is noteworthy about objects?

Spoon, fork, knife, shovel, broom, mop, bat, hat, shoe, sandal, sneaker, slipper, boot, computer, candle—that’s a ton of objects. I’d be alarmed at the thought of having to maintain them all, but perhaps my fear is unwarranted: shelf, desk, wardrobe, box, trunk, suitcase, cupboard, candle holder—that’s a ton of objects stepping up to the rescue, eager to help keep or hold other objects. Still, I can’t help wondering if a count of the number of objects on this planet (human-made objects for the purposes of this discussion) would well exceed the number of flora and fauna that exist. We might consider allowing only distinct objects into such a count, but that may only entangle us in dialectic as to the definition of distinct. For example, a spoon is a spoon and so could be counted only once regardless of the manufacturer of the spoon. But what about a plastic spoon versus a steel one, or a soup spoon versus a tea spoon? Surely those are distinct? It seems reasonable to assert that while the number of objects proliferating around may not be infinite (the math major in me snickers that such a count can not be infinite), they might very well be uncountable.

There are very many humans on this planet and they create, craft, or manufacture very many objects, leading to this Balzacian proliferation. Unlike the stillness and serenity of a clay pot found in the ruins of ancient Egypt or in the Indus valley excavations, very many objects of the twenty-first century are busy and annoying. Like cell phones, those instruments that unabashedly conspire with their carrier human in parks, trains, restaurants, theaters, and grocery stores to generate the most fabulous examples of imbecile conversation. Some objects cover humanoid deficiencies (actual or culturally stereotyped)—consider eyeglasses and padded bras. Some objects provide creature comforts: couch, pillow, umbrella. Homo sapiens can express ingenuity and also alleviate ennui by dishing out objects—playing cards, tarot cards, television sets. Other objects facilitate a definition and expression of identity—cultural, national, or personal: religious icons, flags, wedding rings. And objects have been concocted to keep or hold non-objects: book, video cassette, Kodak film, and the like pop up to keep ideas, content, information and such abstractions. These are chameleon objects ,since they can hold priceless treasures one day and utter junk the next—consider someone’s karaoke being rerecorded on an audio-tape that had a splendid symphony on it.

Unlike Kleist, I refuse to place objects on a grand pedestal as epitomes of utter grace. Rather, I think that much as animals in the wild denote their territory with scent marks, humanoids create and sprinkle objects around their habitat. These inanimate things are a manifestation of humanity’s desperate attempt to endure existence by shaping, manipulating, and hammering matter to create some comfort and something of beauty that can be possessed. Who could own a water-fall, a childhood, or the heart of a beloved? But a memento of Niagara Falls, one’s old Lego set found in a parent’s attic, a pair of tiny sapphire earrings—these things persist for a long time. By allowing a person to own it, an object fills a void, enabling possession and providing something descriptive yet tangible to grasp.

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