A Pale Nimbus of Melancholy

My father’s death preceded my mother’s by 20 months. When my mother died, I was left to empty and close their house. I had visited them often in the house in which I’d grown up, and latterly more often, keeping in frequent contact with my mother following my father’s death. After my mother died and beginning the process of dismantling and packing, I noticed an object in the kitchen on a pass-through counter near the back door, something I hadn’t remembered seeing there before. It was a wooden horse, 12 inches long and nine inches high at the crest of his neck, with a rider on his back–a leather figure in an appropriate scale. The object wasn’t unfamiliar. I think I’d seen it at my grandparents’ cottage years and years before and perhaps more recently on one shelf of the small Sheraton book cabinet my grandmother had been allowed to place in her room at the nursing home. (My grandmother died at 98. She’d given birth to my mother when she was 21. My mother could utter “Mother” for 77 years.)

In 2007, Verso published *Walter Benjamin's Archive*. Four editors assembled material Benjamin had held safe by sending it to friends and colleagues, correctly anticipating his being hounded and hunted by the Nazis until his death in 1940. Thirteen of his archives are included in the volume that reveals, as the editors say, the passions of a collector. They tell us, and as his readers we know, that for Benjamin the activities of a writer included clipping and cutting, montage and assembly, excerpting and quotation. Details closely regarded would for him be revelatory, the incidental and what resided in the margins were a world where Baudelaire's ragpicker scouring the Paris arcades would be the archivist assembling the data for study. The editors tell us through their careful reading of these thirteen archives that Benjamin didn't believe collecting was based on precision or exactness. In his essay "Unpacking My Library," from Volume 2 of his *Selected Writings* (Harvard University Press, 1999), he wrote that a collector is tied, among other things " ...to a relationship to objects which does not emphasize their functional, utilitarian value--that is, their usefulness--but studies and loves them as the scene, the stage, of their fate." In his selecting particular objects to which he attached a collector's passion, the editors said Benjamin was anarchic, resisting the readily classifiable. "The period, the region, the craftsmanship, the former ownership--for a true collector, the whole background of an item," writes Benjamin in "Unpacking My Library," "adds up to a magic encyclopedia whose quintessence is the fate of his object."

Which draws me to Gramma's wooden horse and its significance for me as a particular object, and to Peter Schwenger's book *The Tears of Things, Melancholy and Physical Objects* (University of Minnesota Press, 2006) and his definition of the essential meaning of objects.

Schwenger says there is a melancholy to physical objects. Maybe not if they were to exist alone in the world without us. It is we who attribute the state of melancholy to them in their reminding us, or making evident to us in our perceiving them, that we and they are two in the world and not one, and we are, therefore, not whole. This knowledge is loss, and recognizing the loss provokes an unresolvable melancholy. It is also, incidentally, a state of some value, even desirable, in that it engenders or spurs us to art making where we are able, and failing that, is a goad to awareness not so far from Benjamin's identifying a world in the detail of an object.

Schwenger suggests that the comfort we derive from familiar objects lies in our perceiving them as repositories of some aspect of ourselves, a feeling that is accompanied in that recognition by a sense of loss. (I'm thinking here in my absent conversation with the author that the loss may well derive from the sensible, pragmatic side of ourselves that recognizes that the object, however fondly regarded and closely held, is still a piece of fired clay or a scuffed old plush bear or a chair whose bare arms have been rubbed and worn by the hands of generations but still remains wooden.) My largely but not wholly practical sense acknowledges Schwenger's calling up Freud's argued death drive, "a moment," he argues, "of longing (one of many) for an anterior state of things, the state indeed of being a thing." Restful it would in fact be, but then he notes Freud's pointing out that there is only momentary rest as consciousness is achieved and we oscillate between moving in a lively, inexorable way toward death and pulling back in our desire to resist.

Near to impossible in its quicksilver state is Sartre's en-soi, a perfect globe of a thing that dares not exist even as an idea in that just being an idea requires naming and therefore implies ownership and therefore becomes an object to a subject. Here the slip to loss and then melancholy is trout-silent. A more solid tie is to Benjamin's object in a collection that becomes the magic encyclopedia housing the enlarging circle of affiliated memories.

Benjamin's sense of collecting's essence isn't shared by Baudrillard who, Schwenger says, sees collecting as a response to alienation. "It is because he feels himself alienated or at least lost within a social discourse whose rules he cannot fathom that the collector is drawn to construct an alternative discourse." He would shape a world of his own making, fully comprehensible and one in which he exercises control. Schwenger points out an intriguing contradiction in the form of what he calls a double bind. In lieu of the desired control, the self-determined collector finds an aura of melancholy adhering to the collection. Unable to complete it (which completing is the collection's manifest goal), the collector experiences a sense of loss. Alternately, completing it means arriving at the end.

Contra Baudrillard's grim outcome for collectors, done or still acquiring, is Walter Benjamin from "Unpacking My Library": " ...for a collector--and I mean a real collector, a collector as he ought to be--ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to things. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them."

I'm looking at my grandmother's horse and rider. I admire the object; I have no desire to be that object nor any other--coveted, loved, familiar. Sartre's autonomy holds no appeal. Instead, I look at this figurine and find it full. It's not a souvenir as Susan Stewart defined it in *On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection* (Duke University Press, 1993) where an insatiable nostalgia is its defining characteristic. Nor is it Proust's madeleine where, by its almost sacramental  placement on his tongue, he is transported in time back through his life to its earliest days. Rather, it is a resonant thing, rich and cubic in every aspect of its representation.

My grandmother spent her childhood on a farm. She always loved horses and as an adult would cut them out in a wink for anyone who requested, like a magician, with her embroidery scissors in one gesture, using whatever paper was near. Separating the legs--behold--they would stand.

This horse before me is wooden. His left foreleg has been broken off. As I remember him, he was never otherwise. His colour would be described as chestnut. His flared tail had broken off, too, but had been re-attached with a medical adhesive tape bound, so it wouldn't show except for the edge where it does, in a strip from a brown kid glove sewn in place with coarse black thread. A western-style wooden saddle sits on the horse's back and a most miraculous rider sits on it. The rider is constructed from the fingers of a fine, dark brown kid glove, or maybe two. As I remember her, Gramma would have had no compunction about cutting up a serviceable pair of good kid gloves if they struck her as best suited for the purpose. Each leg is one finger. Each arm is one finger. That's four. His body might be the palm and back of the same glove which could have been the remaining one, its mate lost in a taxi. Or it might be the case that a complete pair was sacrificed. Then there are his chaps to account for--also dark brown kid and conjuring "Made in France." His head is the end of a finger of a white kid glove with the tip bent over his forehead like a cap and held in place with a nicely executed French knot in bright red embroidery floss. A length of this same red floss is a generous tie around his waist ending in long loops. His eyebrows, eyes and nose are stitched in black thread. Another strip of leather serves as a cinch under the girth of the horse, tacked to each of the rider's toes and holding him in place. Strips of a different brown leather are the reins and bridle. Around the rider's neck--in case you might mistake him for just an ordinary kid glove kind of rider--he wears a silk scarf. It is the most beautiful piece of fabric in the world or if not that, then almost that. It is long enough to knot nicely. It is silk satin. A cream ground patterned with small green leaves and stems and pale violets. I thought the flowers were a light brown until I carefully opened out a portion of the scarf under his chin and could see that, indeed, the violets were violet. Age has made a fringe of the scarf's edges. 

And I’m back in the big three-storey house with my face in the wooden shake basket that would have been for laundry but served as a repository for all the glorious scraps of only the finest fabrics–the only kind Gramma would consider: cashmere paisley shawls thin and worn but still vivid, silk faille in a burgundy and navy geometric pattern, ivory silk from an old Chinese embroidered blouse, Irish tweed wool from a jacket that would have been cut down to a vest and ended as patch pockets on another coat, a strip of butter yellow linen from a summer dress. Give me time.

I didn't see my grandmother dress this horse with its glove rider, but I did watch her conjure other figures. Her deep-lidded, large black eyes, well-shaped mouth, high cheek bones, small frame, quick hands, restless nature, her listening to Metropolitan Opera broadcasts every Saturday and never sitting without some hand work within reach.

For me the horse and rider make almost a full picture, as complete as Barthe's photograph of his mother as a child in the winter garden. I can go to it, enter into it and be heir to whatever expansiveness my memory contains. Of course, as for anything that once belonged to someone who has died, whom we knew well and loved, the object is more than itself and wears, along with its own statehood, a pale nimbus of melancholy.