Below is the full text of the Drawing Affinities essay, which turned out as a six-part text entitled The Difficulty of Things. Each section (separated by stars) is usually printed on a separate page.


Here on the table where I put my cup, my mother put hers before me. A trace on the table marks the place very clearly, and with the care she took to keep her cup in place I line mine up precisely.

As I set down my cup, and it is still warm, it contains the opaque depth of her tea and I can taste the sugar and the milk. Through the affinity of place we remember one another back and forth, and confuse the lengths of our hands as we replace, and reach, and replace.

My cup will not stay still.


She told me she had seen a film that afternoon of a boy sitting in the kitchen with cut-up bits of magazine on the table around him. On his plate he had put a little shiny roast chicken with orange potatoes around it; a fish on an oval platter with its head still on, the parsley garnish on top delicately perforated by his careful scissors; three lamb chops spaced about near the flowers printed on the rim of his plate; further along a rounded bunch of green that was broccoli or spinach, a bed of spinach, around two stuffed peppers topped with cheese; and an immaculate pavlova, photographed from above, perfectly round and the centrepiece of his little mealtime. As he cut and pushed the white edges of paper about his plate, and needed a spoon because their whisper-thinness would not accommodate the prongs of a fork, and as he put the pictures into his mouth to chew and soften, he was quiet.

The little boy made me sad, and he troubled me during the in-between parts of the day, while I was in the shower, and waiting at the level crossing, and while the tape in my Walkman was rewinding. I got him confused with his paper scraps: I imagined how careful he must have been with his filigree hair, to cut it out for the film, and I worried about his ear lobes and eyelashes, in case he cut into them or cut them clean off; and even if they came away neatly, mightn’t they tear at any moment, so thin? With the little boy so paper-thin I confused his body with his skin, and couldn’t keep track of his surface. What alarmed me most of all was the thought of the fine webbed joins between his paper fingers while he leafed through the magazines holding his scissors ready. I imagined that either the scissors would put thick creases in him with their weight, or the pages would catch the skin of his hands and lengthen his fingers horribly with cannibal paper cuts.

At other times I would find myself parcelling up his little paper body in my head, turning him over and folding his legs up and his arms across him like an ironed shirt. I balanced the fish, the parsley, the pavolva, all of his cut-outs flatly over his little stomach and folded his limbs up around them like an envelope, like a child’s game from the nineteen hundreds, ready for him to die, because of his hunger. Sometimes I would be the little boy, with my head flapped down and my arms in, and I found that an upside-down skirt kept the foods in better than shorts and thin legs, which let the lamb chops through.


“He began, very cautiously, to open his eyes, to see whether a gramophone was really there. But real things – real things were too exciting. He must be cautious. He would not go mad. First he looked at the fashion papers on the lower shelf, then gradually at the gramophone with the green trumpet. Nothing could be more exact. And so, gathering courage, he looked at the sideboard; the plate of bananas; the engraving of Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort, at the mantelpiece, with the jar of roses. None of these things moved. All were still; all were real”
Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (1925)

Septimus began with the safest thing: the fashion papers, the least real and the least likely of all to move. They had already concluded themselves in the settling of their pictures and texts, which had begun elsewhere but were able now to lie quite still on the lower shelf without too much risk of flickering. Not real things, but pictures of things.

The difficulty for Septimus was the risk of exchange between what he saw to be real and what he knew to be true: two matters of fact that he counted upon to reliably combine into the single, simple statement of a thing. A cup stands for a cup by being a cup. We count on a cup to stay still. The things we carry around with us in our homes serve to reassure us that they are just so.

But the stillness of a thing is set by the edges that contain it: edges thinly differentiated from the space around them by minute and very careful calculations of belonging. It is at its edges that a thing quickens and begins to offer itself to the multiple associations of its time.

Against its edges are membranes stretched taut by equal pressures from within and without. It is a membrane so fine and closely pulled that the fragmentary shivers of the most persuasive associations (those closest to the skin, which fit most neatly) make palpable the chance of rupture, pressing to the point of crisis its delicate integrity. Unsealed, then all of time would sway and draw apart, and rush roaring into itself and pulled by the plummeting weight of those earliest driving perforations – an ocean through a plug hole – tear through into the world and deafeningly bloom down upon us, and then nothing: consummated, undifferentiated, gone; the silent roar of thought that has swallowed the stuff of itself.


Our affliction is to watch the strangeness of the muted world from above, like a citation lifted loose of the ground around it. To ease the edges of things beyond their natural forms in an effort to understand the sense of them, stretching a single mark beyond its bounds into broad, drifting shadows, obtuse and inarticulate.

Could we not imagine the rustle of the world, with its events denatured to the point that they float? A fabric woven of the endless undifferentiated flux of the things that can happen. A tissue of continuous events: buildings and places; gestures and journeys; laws of physics and geometry, absorbed into the imagination of themselves and indistinct from one another. A matrix of temporal and spatial proportions; an assertion of the stuff of the world, without motive or direction, mysterious and changeful as it is familiar. The rustle of the world, expanding exponentially, infinitely, assimilating each new thing as it is born, as it is built, absorbing the result of each incorporation, would be a mirror to itself: a single, unbounded word caught in contemplation of itself and murmuring within itself its own, only, polyphonous name.


We looked at a Rembrandt while we were there, whose hands moved slightly. Alma liked it, she said it slipped: four hundred and fifty years and it was still slipping. She liked to carry the paintings about with her, and collected the waifs left in the air by hazy brushstrokes. She kept the waifs in a little purse she carried with her for the purpose, and when she got home in the evening she would lay them out and piece them together in case of familiarities. Once she invited me home to lay them out with her, because she had it in mind that an evening of tessellation might make it easier to understand.

When we got to Alma’s flat there was a lady in her bed again, who mistook Alma’s floor for hers and sometimes settled herself in. Alma’s flat was in the same place as hers but three floors above, and Alma told me she would often find her here and there, half way through this or that, and she would have to close the peanut butter for her or wake her up again and give her her slippers, and then she would take her to the door of the lift and press four, which was the number of the lady’s floor. On this occasion the lady wasn’t quite asleep yet, and slipped from one bed to the other with a symmetry that must have seemed to her quite reasonable, in her loosened state.

That evening the lady had her own night dress on: flannel with soft paisley shapes in pale blue, and quilting around the neck. The trouble was that the lighter paisleys would come away and float about in her bed for days afterwards, and leave the old lady’s night dress unsettled. We thought it might be this that kept her coming back to Alma’s bed time and again, as though she were troubled by the thought of all her orphaned loops left on Alma’s sheet, and the pallid traces they left behind on the outside of her night dress.

Alma collected up two of the paisleys and put them into her purse with the other waifs. We sat down on the floor and I watched as Alma emptied out her purse onto the low table, and sorted through the dusty feathers of paint. She tried to put them into orders that she said they never kept, but she would never tire of shuffling them again and laying them out in new configurations. Her evenings on the floor solidified one by one, layer upon layer on her low down table, and the strands of air she had loosened around her settled into prose.


We carry things around with us and we don’t want to. I have a bag I take with me with my umbrella and my chairs and my hat, and it is an enormous bag that is hard to get through the bus door but I carry it with me nevertheless, and other people do too. When we see one another we walk on, because there is nothing helpful to be done.

This is the difficulty of things, which we love and we need and we can do nothing with. This is the difficulty with the love of our things, which outweighs the things, and which causes us to make up stories and pretend that they hang around with us always, and we pretend and pretend until they do hang about us, our chairs and our coats and our bags, always.

Here and there there are so many things, so many things that it is hard to keep track of them. The things I have around me are the stones I gather and throw away, only once they are thrown they remain thrown, and cannot be caught back, and remain heavier still, only everywhere. Here there are the heavy words of this paragraph, to the end of its sound.

We carry things around with us in these reluctant bags and we wait until they come to use. Sometimes they do come to use. We have to keep an eye on their loosest parts, until they begin to give way.