Solid Objects: A Life in Things, A Life of Things

Read Virginia Woolf’s story “Solid Objects.

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A brass lipstick holder with decaying glue around the edges.

A box of letters spanning the course of two wars.

Strange postcards.

A nightgown with a burn, paint splatters, and a tear.

A tiny cardboard box with a torn up piece of paper containing a handwritten haiku and a single tear.

Three tiny blue stones.

Disjointed photographs, some with bits torn or cut out.

A copy of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse with a Goodwill price tag of two dollars and fifty cents.

I want you to contemplate these objects and their lives. Contemplate objects in your life that come to mind, some perhaps strange and disjointed objects. Perhaps you might recall prized possessions or simply things lying on your kitchen counter right now. Objects each possess their own autobiography, and yet they also each recall the stories of their possessors. Objects have their own histories as much as they tools of biography (or autobiography) for humans.

In this way, the agency of objects and the way humans are drawn to them creates either a malicious object or a benign object. In Virginia Woolf’s short story, “Solid Objects,” the protagonist, John, is so drawn to a piece of sea glass that it destroys his career and friendships, as he searches relentlessly for other similar objects that call to him. John is like an addict, compelled to the material world, willing to sacrifice much to acquire more “solid objects.”

Many of the protagonists examined in this course have shown similar behaviors in relation to their collections. Madame Sarah from L.T. Meade’s The Sorceress of the Strand is willing to cause murder and mayhem in order to secure pearls and fortune, Cousin Pons (Balzac) loses agency and becomes an easy target, des Esseintes in Joris-Karl Huysmans’ novel Against Nature desires beautiful objects so entirely that he kills a tortoise, placing jewels on its shell until it ceases to live and dies an ornament.

Looking at these examples, where do we place positive relationships with objects? They must exist, as we interact with objects constantly. What about the quilt that keeps you warm, or the forks allowing you to place food in your mouth? What about the objects that simply want to be possessed, serve a purpose, or those that stand in for memory and nostalgia, who acquire an aura as they are brought along with us in our biographies, becoming affixed to them?

Janell Watson states “relationships among things are inseparable from relationships among people, implying that the world of things is a social world, with a social structure.” (7) If objects have relationships with other objects, and humans have relationships with other humans, and the two coexist simultaneously, then obviously the human-object relationship is significant. This is evident through marketplaces, collecting, museums, etc. I will look at the private collection and the public sale of the bibelot as ways of negotiating malicious and benign objects.

This work is titled: “Solid Objects: A Life in Things, A Life of Things.” We will look at Woolf’s story, the bibelot, and a number of objects and their trajectories and influence.

My experience of reading Virginia Woolf’s short story, “Solid Objects,” was a strange one. I wanted to annotate as I read, and since I don’t have the computer skills to figure out how to do this digitally, I had to print the story off of Project Gutenberg. Woolf’s story bounced out of my printer, without a title, and in a long column in calibri font. Its leap into the material world felt decidedly un-Woolf-like. It lay on the tray of my printer while I got distracted, ran a bath, did some laundry, poured a glass of wine, and called my mother.

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When I returned to the printer, the five sheets of paper seemed sad next to a pile of complete Woolf books. I thought of the Virginia Woolf prayer candle I bought at Powell’s books in Portland, or the “Stream of UnConsciousness” beer advertisement that my father bought me for Christmas. I thought of these objects that paid tribute to Woolf, of the multiple copies of her books I owned, and these 5, sad sheets of paper, spat out from a machine whose ink supply was dwindling.

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I could not separate Woolf’s books from their physical form, and thought of the dozens of times I came across To the Lighthouse in a thrift store or at a garage sale and forked over a quarter for it. Multiple copies did seem excessive, so each time I would buy another, I would deposit it into the “Tiny Library” outside of the family business in Black Diamond.

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While the fives sheets of paper containing the story “Solid Objects” lay on the printer, neglected, I drove to the nearest thrift store, curious to see if my hypothesis that there was always a copy of a Woolf book at a secondhand store at any given time was true.

It was.

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However, what piqued my interest once entering the Varsity Goodwill (aside from the wall of dresses, of course) was not the books, but the rows of knick-knacks and trinkets I had to clear before I came to the shelves of books.

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A bibelot, according to Watson, is a category of classification of object. The definition is malleable, but comes into fashion with kitschy knick-knacks with little purpose but to be of aesthetic value, or to show that the possessor has excess money to spend on things with little use. The category of the bibelot “juxtaposes the museum-worthy heirloom against the mass-produced trinket.” (7) The term has extended to include what might be called “curiosities.”

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I was, quite literally, surrounded by biblelots, in the strange world of the thrift store. Part quasi-antique store, part garage sale, part garbage bin, part retail experience. Ignoring the H&M pants and worn-in sketchers, the thrift store is, to me, a modern-day curiosity shop.

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In Woolf’s story, John finds a lump of glass, of sea glass or perhaps a jewel. In the story, this becomes what I like to call, John’s “formative object” or “formative bibelot.” I call it this, because this small object becomes a cornerstone of his personality, life, and aesthetic. He begins to search for things that compel him in a similar way.

John, after looking at the lump for a moment, as if in hesitation, slipped it inside his pocket. That impulse, too, may have been the impulse which leads a child to pick up one pebble on a path strewn with them, promising it a life of warmth and security upon the nursery mantelpiece, delighting in the sense of power and benignity which such an action confers, and believing that the heart of the stone leaps with joy when it sees itself chosen from a million like it, to enjoy this bliss instead of a life of cold and wet upon the high road. “It might so easily have been any other of the millions of stones, but it was I, I, I!”

I, too had a formative object. At an estate sale (or maybe an auction? I was about six and my memory from even the past weekend is quite foggy), I came across a silver lipstick holder, with 3 rusty tubes of lipstick inside. It had a sticker that said $1 on it, and as a six year old going on sixteen, the lipstick compelled me more than the holder, which was ornate but its shine dulled over the years. The lipsticks in their metal tubes smelled powdery and floral, and were probably as old as my mother. I had been given a loonie to spend and then my mother set me loose upon the vast array of things. Drawn to this lipstick holder, I proudly took it up to an older lady acting as cashier. She promptly removed the lipsticks, stating that I was too young for makeup, and took my money. Before I could protest or haggle a cheaper price for just a piece of useless metal, I was swept up in a cloud of old perfume and lost among the skirts of adults.

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Now, I was six years old and had a weird-looking metal contraption and no lipstick. I had spent my money, so I didn’t want to relinquish the lipstick holder, so I found a stump outside to sit on and wait for my mother, and contemplated the thing. What use did a six year old have for an empty lipstick holder? I supposed I could stand my barbies in it, or use it to hold lilacs from the bush outside my bedroom window. Maybe I would even steal some lipstick from my mother or grandmother to hold in it. Suddenly, this mess of ornate metal became a limitless opportunity for exploration.

Of course, it lay at the bottom of a box of polly pockets and small dolls, and eventually disappeared, but my “formative object” stuck with me, and strangely enough, I came across a similar holder while on my search for Woolf books at goodwill. It isn’t quite an exact replica of the formative object, but it is close.

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Ever since that day at the estate sale, I have been drawn, like John, to windows full of curious objects: antique stores, second hand stores, landfills, vintage shops, flea markets, garage sales, etc. I have become a collector of objects that refuse to let go of me, and like John or des Esseintes, I surround myself with them. I lay in bed reading, and when my mind wanders from the page, my eyes land on my collection of art dolls, or a souvenir from a trip to Europe.

These objects range from the typical (books) to the atypical: other people’s letters and photographs. I am always astounded by the discovery of letters, postcards, or photos at an antique shop or in a box at a garage sale.

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Now, obviously, a lipstick holder has a function. This function is more or less obsolete now, like a chamber pot or coffee-table-ashtray.

In reading Solid Objects, I found myself reflecting on things I keep that serve little function other than to incite memory or because I am compelled to hold onto them. This is a selection of those objects, and following are stories and photos of them.

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I will begin with a trunk. A treasure box, a trove of curiosities. The first image in this paper was of this trunk, found at a vintage store by my mother, collaged, and entered in the art category of a country fair. I later repurposed it into my “treasure chest.”

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Looking at this chest, none of the objects seem very remarkable, some strange and more like trash than treasures. Many of these objects are found, either on the street or in thrift shops. Souvenirs, tokens, gifts, souvenirs, etc., all gather in this chest. Many are signifiers- they represent people, places, times, feelings, and thus I find it difficult to describe them by their true names; they are simply their association, they tell my story. My story doesn’t pan out like John’s and it isn’t as daring as Madame Sarah’s (yet), but it does contain objects; I am but a story told in objects, and without them and my relationship to them, what am I?

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Take, for instance, this first group of images. Three distinct life moments reflected in three objects one would not take a passing glance at if seen in a dumpster. Broken porcelain baby shoes, an old Barbie, a crumpled note with the ink running, deteriorating from being fondled.

These objects clearly have significance to me, but as Kopytoff makes clear, I have significance to these objects: I have made an impression on them and in turn shaped their history. Most of these objects are representative of something, but to these objects, I am a direct physical force that arranges their biography. These objects interact with my body, with my skin cells, the oil on my fingers, and the humidity of my breath. The containers in which I place them affect how they are preserved- the acidity of the fabric in this trunk can alter their chemistry and break down the different components of their being. Their interactions with other objects I place with them also changes their physical being- a candle is susceptible to melting when placed with heat conducting objects, and can easily be scratched by even bits of paper that it rests with. Often, bits of material that have been squashed lie at the bottom of the trunk, because I have not arranged the objects carefully enough.

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The above objects are also contained in this chest. What might their experience be in relation to me, the collector? What might we call my system of collecting? I offer no answers to these questions, other than that each object holds significance to me, but are still minute items in a large box.

I might refer to some of these objects as “prized posessions,” as strange and often fragile they might be. What makes them significant, how do they speak to each other? What does the collection say that the individual object does not? What makes a note from an ex lover so impossible to throw away, or a piece of sea glass happened upon? When does collecting or nostalgia turn to hoarding? Is there a clear distinction? Are we differently attuned or just overly sentimental and perhaps materialistic?

What can we do to overcome the pull of objects, especially the malicious objects- and how do we distinguish between these different kinds of objects?

One way I’ve seen this happen, and worked into my own creative and collecting practice is the dada derived art form of assemblage and found art. Through defamiliarization (Duchamp’s “Fountain”), collage (Breton, Arendt), and domestication (taxidermy and natural history arts).

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Curiosity cabinets are a form of assemblage and collecting; they are personal museums that, unlike a stack of stones on a mantelpiece, or the small objects at the bottom of a chest serve an aesthetic, historic, and personal purpose.

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Objects have a much greater hold on us than we realize, and we affect the life of objects much more than we ever stop to think. The hold some objects have over us can seem benign but become malicious, and I think that the only way to counteract malicious objects it to turn them into art, and thus honour their materiality and our separate human-ness.

Works Cited and Consulted

Balzac, Honorare De. Cousin Pons. N.p.: Anncona Media, 2015. Print.

Huysmans, J.-K. Against Nature. North Charleston: CreateSpace, 2011. Print.

Kopytoff, Igor. “Chapter 2: The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process.” The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Ed. Arjun Appadurai. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011. 64-91. Print.

Meade, L. T., Robert Eustace, and Gordon Browne. The Sorceress of the Strand. 2003.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Watson, Janell. “The Bibelot.” Literature and Material Culture from Balzac to Proust: The Collection and Consumption of Curiosities. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1999. 9-26. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. Selected Short Stories. N.p.: Penguin, 2000. Print.

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