I’m trying to find out more about what things do. This morning I read an article called The Tyranny of Things by Bill Brown (Critical Inquiry, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Winter, 2002) pp. 442-469).

“What Twain helps us to recognize is how the accumulation of objects (and not the desire for the object) might be considered the (futile) effort to materialize that abstraction-to fill up that abstraction, as it were, with particular contents. ‘The House Beautiful’ chapter of Life on the Mississippi registers that effort with a five-page catalogue of objects: ‘ingrain carpet; mahogany centre-table; lamp on it, with green-paper shade. […] Other bric-a-brac […] quartz, with gold wart adhering; old Guinea-gold locket, with circlet of ancestral hair in it; Indian arrow-heads, of flint.’ Despite the hyperspecificity of the catalogue, these are simply the generic contents of the generic “residence of the principal citizen, all the way from the suburbs of New Orleans to the edge of St. Louis.’ However passionate the particularity, it has no particularizing point.” (p. 465)

Later on he quotes Mark Twain’s Autobiography (1924), written ten years after the death of his daughter Suzy:

“It is one of the mysteries of our nature that a man, all unprepared, can receive a thunder-stroke like that and live. There is but one reasonable explanation of it. The intellect is stunned by the shock and but gropingly gathers the meaning of the words. The power to realize their full import is mercifully wanting. The mind has a dumb sense of vast loss-that is all. It will take mind and memory months, and possibly years, to gather together the details and thus learn and know the whole extent of the loss. A man’s house burns down. The smoking wreckage represents only a ruined home that was dear through years of use and pleasant associations. By and by, as the days and weeks go on, first he misses this, then that, then the other thing. And when he casts about for it he finds that it was in that house. Always it is an essential-there was but one of its kind. […] It will be years before the tale of lost essentials is complete, and not till then can he truly know the magnitude of his disaster.” (pp. 467-8)

Advertisements