Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for March 18th, 2018

The secret life of objects

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The past does retain a physical presence for the biographer—in landscapes, buildings, photographs, and above all the actual trace of handwriting on original letters or journals. Anything a hand has touched is for some reason peculiarly charged with personality—Thomas Hardy’s simple steel-tipped pens, each carved with a novel’s name; Shelley’s guitar, presented to Jane Williams; Balzac’s blue china coffee-pot, with its spirit-heater, used through the long nights of Le Père Goriot and Les Illusions Perdues; other writers’ signet rings, worn walking sticks, Coleridge’s annotated books, Stevenson’s flageolet and tortoise-shell “Tusilita” ring. It is as if the act of repeated touching, especially in the process of daily work or creation, imparts a personal “virtue” to an inanimate object, gives it a fetishistic power in the anthropological sense, which is peculiarly impervious to the passage of time. Gautier wrote in a story that the most powerful images of past life in the whole of Pompeii were the brown, circular prints left by drinkers’ glasses on the marble slabs of the second-century taverna.

But this physical presence is none the less extremely deceptive. The material surfaces of life are continually breaking down, sloughing off, changing almost as fast as human skin…The more closely and scrupulously you follow someone’s footsteps through the past the more conscious do you become that they never existed in any one place along the recorded path. You cannot freeze them, you cannot pinpoint them, at any particular turn in the road, bend of the river, view from the window. They are always in motion, carrying their past lives over into the future.

Richard HolmesFootsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer

Written by nevalalee

March 18, 2018 at 7:30 am

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