February 14, 2011
Safety in Objects
by Alyssa Pelish
“He brought out the five objects and studied them. The green strip of cloth. The code key. The ticket stub. The parcel receipt. The half poker chip. Strange, that little things like that could be important.”
—“Paycheck,” Philip K. Dick
If people know just one thing about Proust, it’s the madeleine. And why wouldn’t that be just exactly what catches in the popular imagination? Whether you read it yourself or hear of it secondhand, there’s a great deal of wish fulfillment in that scene: one small cookie that seems to contain the entirety of a grown man’s childhood. The moment it occurs is marvelous. This is that famous moment, more cited than any other, when our narrator at last recognizes the taste of the tea-soaked madeleine as that of the morsels that his aunt would give him, and
immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden, which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated panel which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I was sent before luncheon, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. And just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little pieces of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognisable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea .
“From my cup of tea.” The tea in which he’d dissolved the crumbs of that madeleine. That very small cookie. What impossible relief, that. To find that all is not lost – that, in fact, all has been neatly contained and preserved in a small object not a bit subject to the vicissitudes of one’s own moods and mental lapses. See it splendidly unfurl and bloom like a paper flower come alive in water.
Most people are concerned at least a little about remembering. This is largely why shops sell souvenirs and we snap photographs and save ticket stubs and keep diaries. Most people are at least a little bit worried about losing the past. Memory is messy; it’s most of the time hopelessly inexact and fragmented. It’s unreliable – if it’s there at all. So to be able to stash the whole of one’s experience in a small object, retrievable (as it was not even for Proust) at will, sounds very reassuring. It does to me, at least.
I’m not sure I consciously worried much about the past – about my retention of it – until it happened that I inadvertently set myself very much adrift in the present. You can do this, it turns out, when the only apparent constant in a concatenation of addresses in cities across the country is your tenuous identity as a graduate student. When you snip that single connecting thread, when you then wind up in another completely different city, whereupon you become ill – your sense of disconnection from everything else you’ve ever done or thought you were is grave.
So it was then, in a small studio apartment in Los Angeles, that city whose ahistoricity has troubled everyone from Nathanael West to Fredric Jameson, that I began to worry about how much was lost. When you are unmoored in every possible way, there is no anchoring past that allows you to begin situating yourself in the present. You are simply at sea. Consequently, I become very preoccupied with preserving what was still left.
"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe: attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion; I've watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time – like tears in rain. Time to die."
—Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty, Blade Runner
The same sort of thing happened, it turns out, following the French Revolution. Alfred de Musset gets it right in his 1836 Confession of a Child of the Century, when he observes, “All that was is no longer; all that will be is not yet. Look nowhere else for the secret of our suffering.” Post-Revolution. The Ancien Régime in tatters. The gears of the Industrial Age turning people out of their familiar villages into large, anonymous cities. The past you had always, unquestionably, carried with you, was no longer self-evident: the people who could recognize it and the land that could localize it were all gone.
It was during this time, during that long nineteenth-century extending from about 1789 to 1920, that people became very concerned with retrieving and preserving their past. Memoirs and the novel, these stories that traced and consolidated a personal history, came into their own. The idea of locating an individual across time and of establishing some kind of continuity of self was hugely appealing to these displaced citizens. And it was also during this time that the French verb souvenir began to be used as a noun, creeping into the English vocabulary to mean a token of remembrance. The abstract act of remembering, then, materialized; it came to be a palpable object.
It was about the time of that rupture in my own familiar life that I noticed in myself an increasing inclination to preserve – not to miss, not to lose, anything. In a world where all the pieces of my past now seemed hopelessly disconnected – from one another and, most certainly, from the present – I was all at once overwhelmed by the idea of everything there was to be lost and forgotten. There was too much, it seemed: too much to taste and try and read and hear and see and watch and know – and just as staggering was the knowledge of how most of those things, as actual experiences or as distant possibilities, would be forgotten. It seemed very important not to forget, and yet – it was inevitable.
If I returned to reading Proust at that time, it was not for any reason other than that it stood as a token of the life I had apparently given up, of the days I had spent slowly reading and considering the subtle turns of those sentences (any one of which, I suddenly realized, it would be a terrible loss to forget). And so I returned to Proust at what was surely the most incongruent of times: as the most recent of graduate school dropouts, unemployed and holed-up in a studio apartment several blocks from Paramount Pictures, with its iconic water tower, and the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, with its palm trees and holographic tombstones – two curious poles of the afterlife.
What I soon recalled, though, as I reread, was the importance of objects in the book. Not just those nearly talismanic objects through which the narrator eventually retrieves whole deep moments of the past – but earlier on, objects that seem to contain something that the narrator can’t yet access. I read again the sentences about, yes, the madeleine, as well as the steeples of Martinville and the paving stone and the sound of the spoon clattering against a dish and the starchiness of the dinner napkin and the book in the library. And it’s true, as the narrator comes to realize, that these objects don’t literally contain his past; they are potent summons of the past that he himself contains. Yet I began to think what an incredible relief it would be – to possess an object that could contain all of one’s experiences, such that they could be accessed – not just in the happenstance fashion of the narrator, but at will. One could rest easy, stop worrying over all there is to be lost.
“The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach, of intellect, in some material object…which we do not suspect. And as for that object, it depends on chance whether we come upon it or not before we ourselves must die.”
—In Search of Lost Time, Proust, trans. Moncrieff
There is no such object, of course. There never has been, and there never will be. Yet the aides-memoires (if you will) that accumulate by the gigabyteful – in the form of smart phones and tablet computers and the like – would seem to aspire to it. What they offer, in their containment of our photographs and music collections, our subscription publications and personal libraries, our diaries and address books and calendars and correspondence, is an efficiency of storage and access that does begin to make earlier generations look like Swift’s Lagadons, who carried objects on their backs instead of using words. It’s not that these gadgets can contain what Proust’s narrator experiences when the starched swipe of a dinner napkin makes present to him the very sensation of a seascape of his youth. But the only way for anyone to record and store that endless ephemera that biochemically bursts and vanishes from our conscious mind has always been to articulate it in a form we can recognize.
These contemporary aides-memoires serve voluntary memory – the comparatively brittle, intellectual kind that has none of the immediacy of those great limbic bursts of involuntary memory Proust revered. Yet there’s nothing to say that an unexpected song on a play list or a particular line as we browse a digital collection of poetry, couldn’t produce such a burst. The appeals of these digitals aids, then, is that so many of the fragments you (forgive me, T.S. Eliot) shore against your ruins can fit in an object that fits in your hand: a tablet, a pod, etc. There they are, contained in a solid object, eminently searchable and – most importantly – not subject to the mental and emotional lapses of the average mind.
It so essentially human, this desire to locate our important mental data outside of ourselves, whether in the unexpected objects of Proust’s novel or the eclectic passel of trinkets the protagonist of Philip K. Dick’s “Paycheck” wills to himself before his memory is wiped, in order access important knowledge that would otherwise be lost. Because what an iPhone, or that tea-soaked madeleine, does is to preserve what is important to us outside of ourselves, safe from the messiness of our interiority.
“Hullo object. I destroyed you. I love you.”
—D.W. Winnicott, “The Use of an Object and Relating Through Identifications”
“Object use,” D.W. Winnicott called it. Winnicott, of the object relations school of psychology, pinpointed this more advanced relationship to the world a child finally reaches. It is the point when a child moves away from the early narcissism that understands all objects as merely extensions or projections of the self. And it’s is a huge step to move away from the sense that there is nothing outside the self, to suddenly recognize objects as entities in their own right, wholly independent of you! Winnicott emphasizes the joy of this realization: what relief, really, to discover that objects can survive us. That rocking horse in the corner, the stuffed rabbit, our own mother: they all continue to exist even when we are not there, even when we love them too much or hate them too much – even when we cease to think of them at all. Wondrously, they survive. They survive us. And we love them all the more for that.
This idea, then, that you might be able to store important ideas and memories in a place outside of yourself, in an object that is separate from and immune to all the messiness and unpredictability inside us, seems to offer a kind of relief very similar to what Winnicott describes. We have always expressed and externalized experience in the form of images and sounds and words – throughout history we have produced galleries and libraries full of them. But we have not always been able to contain those forms in one small object that we can carry with us. If this is the essential appeal of something like the iPad, I can understand it.
“A conflict is then set up between the will to see everything, to forget nothing, and the power of memory which has acquired the habit of quickly absorbing the general color and silhouette, the arabesque of the form.”
—“Mnemonic Art,” Baudelaire
We do not need to remember everything, of course. To have the entirety of our past accessible, immediately at hand, is a security blanket that might eventually smother us. Plenty of artists have insisted upon the creativity inherent in imperfect recollection. Charles Baudelaire famously railed against photography, largely out of fear for how such seemingly total recall would affect the painter’s mind. Pierre Bonnard refused to paint with his object before him, preferring to let his initial impressions of a scene filter through time.
We do find our footing in the present by knowing the past, but there is much to be said for selectivity of recall. I may sock away experience by taking copious notes and storing the bulk of them in a four gigabyte flash drive that I can then hold in the palm of my hand and place in a drawer – which does indeed offer me some comfort. But I’m also aware of how most experience returns to me in the kind of silhouette, the arabesque of a form, that Baudelaire describes – which is something I have little conscious control of. If I did, if I were to keep a talismanic object always at my side – and this is something Proust warns against – “my impressions of today would insert themselves in it and blot out the earlier ones.”
So I do not surround myself, Miss Havisham-like, with terribly many palpable pieces of the past. I actually don't even own an iPhone. But I still do long, in what I think is a very human way, for safety in objects.
 A madeleine is really more like a tiny cake, but I’ll go along with calling it a cookie because someone once pointed out to me the similar function shared by Proust’s cookie and the kind of cookies on your web browser that store information and return it in a burst.
 From C.K. Moncrieff’s 1922 translation
 The novelist Javier Marías is incredibly disconcerting in this respect. In novel after novel, his narrators are haunted by all that is, inevitably, lost:
So many things happen without anyone realizing or remembering. There is almost no record of anything, fleeting thoughts and actions, plans and desires, secret doubts, fantasies, acts of cruelty and insults, words said and heard and later denied or misunderstood or distorted, promises made and then overlooked, even by those to whom they were made, everything is forgotten or invalidated, whatever is done alone or not written down, along with everything that is done not alone but in company, how little remains of each individual, how little trace remains of anything, and how much of that little is never talked about and, afterwards, one remembers only a tiny fraction of what was said, and then only briefly, the individual memory is not passed on and is, anyway, of no interest to the person receiving it, who is busy forging his or her own memories.
—Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me. Trans. Margaret Jull Costa
 An emerging theory among philosophers of mind has created a lot of controversy lately. The theory, called Extended Mind Theory, asserts that objects that aid in our cognitive processes – things like an address book, a calculator, an iPhone – are actually part of a continuous cognitive loop, and that it’s arbitrary to distinguish between these objects and the biological matter in our skull. The real heart of the debate seems to lie in a difference of opinion about where so-called representational states or processes (like memories and beliefs) reside: solely within a biologically stratum, or outside of it as well? While it’s beyond the scope of this essay to get into the finer points of the debate, it seems to me that proponents and detractors alike are tapping into different stages of object relations. Aren’t those who are convinced of the theory opting wishfully for that early omnipotence that exists only in infancy – when everything – everything! – is an extension of ourselves? And aren’t those who reject the theory – and often quite fiercely at that – not at all willing to return to a stage before objects became independent of us, before they were safe from all of our internal messiness?
 Moncrieff’s translation of Proust, again.
Posted by Alyssa Pelish at 01:00 AM | Permalink