Small Objects of Desire

I remember once, a long time ago, reading a weekend colour-supplement article entitled Small Objects of Desire. It must have been a long time ago – probably the 1980s since one of the desired articles was a mobile phone. I seem to recall that in the ’80s most mobile phones were the size of a dachshund dog, and had aerials. The phones, not the dachshunds.

Try as I might I can’t remember any of the other desired objects listed in that article, but the pictures of them were lovely. My father tended to discard a whole heap of supplements every weekend in favour of the newspapers they fell out of. I rescued them and relished them, mostly because of the arty colour photographs and sophisticated, intellectual, cultured, urban lifestyle they seemed to imply everyone lived. This was in the days before the internet, of course: nowadays we’re awash with arty images.

I’ve actually been trying to find out where that oddly memorable phrase Small Objects of Desire came from. It struck me it had to be a quote rather than something a journalist would just make up. The nearest I have got to it is something on Wikipedia, linking it to French psychoanalyst by the name of Lacan in the 1950s or ‘60s, who coined the term Object petit a which makes no sense grammatically and which he stipulated should never be translated. So I haven’t. Neither have I been able to untangle Monsieur Lacan’s psychoanalytical theories though I’m normally quite good at that sort of thing.

But it did lead me to wondering what might be my small objects of desire? I think the phrase rules out anything you already possess – such as the green glass cat I mentioned in The Armageddon Suitcase. I think it means things you want. Little things. Exquisite little things. Or maybe things you have lost.

I’m afraid the first thing that occurred to me was my Phillips screwdriver with the orange handle. In fact, that may be what inspired this post. I found it, you see. It was a particularly useful screwdriver – just the right size for most household uses – and I liked the orangeness of the handle. It was a lucky object for me, like the battered retractable tape-measure my father once gave me. I lost both of them, eventually. The tape-measure has never returned. Despite serial house moves since then I can’t help but continue to keep an eye out for it.

But the orange screwdriver turned up the other day, in a cardboard box with an old red kettle. Why I had kept the kettle (which didn’t work – I tried it) and why and when I had dropped the screwdriver into the cardboard box with it – who knows. Finding it I felt… as if all had become slightly less skew-whiff with the world, somehow. But the world is still somewhat skew-whiff because of Dad’s tape-measure.

So – lost objects are objects of desire, almost by definition, but what about purely desired objects?

I tend to desire expensive stationery. Yes, I know that’s odd. Those completely useless little leather notebooks with vellum-like paper, smoothly-rounded edges and marbled boards or marbled endpapers (I used to catalogue old books for a publisher – that’s what they’re called, those swirly patterns). And I crave pencils – specifically those dark green pencils that look as if they’re crafted from the skins of wooden alligators; 2B graphite, no other; and sharp.

The desiring does not necessarily depend on how much an object costs, though it may do.

Paintings – little paintings. I think if I had money I would buy little watercolours and display them all up the stairs. But I’d have to get the stairway redecorated first, to show them off to best advantage. That’s the trouble, isn’t it? One expenditure will always beget another.

Books – I would buy old books, especially dictionaries.  I like the outdated or wilfully eccentric definitions of words (Samuel Johnson: Oats: A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people) combined with indecipherable typefaces and that unmistakeable smell of crumbling pages, the dust of centuries disturbed…

Anyway, I’ve run out of puff with this idea and the tumble dryer has started beeping at me. A list to be added to another time, perhaps.

What are your small objects of desire?

And have you any idea what old Lacan was on about?

What’s Going On, Mrs Robinson?

You know that scene in The Graduate where bewildered Ben (Dustin Hoffman) finds himself high up in a chapel behind a glass window, desperately trying to interrupt that dull little Elaine’s wedding before it’s too late? He’s hammering and hammering on the glass but no one seems to hear him. Soon after my own wedding I had a dream similar to that. My window dream was this: I was standing high up in a giant, modernistic airport or railway station, looking down at crowds of people walking fast and mostly, it seemed, in one direction, on the level beneath. Suddenly I saw my husband, walking with them, but I knew he would never be able to hear me through the glass. I watched helplessly as he walked on and disappeared and I was left with a sense of panic and sadness.

So, you are saying – that’s pretty obvious – her Unconscious knew she was making a mistake even as she made it. Unconscious was trying to tell her that she and this man were destined to be isolated from one another, always, walking on two different levels and never able to overcome the communication barrier between them. I refer you to a poem I wrote some years later when Conscious, belatedly, had got the message.

I believe Jung put forward the idea that one’s Unconscious is likely to be oppositely-gendered to one’s conscious self. Certainly, mine is male. Jung’s “Philemon” was enviably classical and elaborate. He seemed as much a psychoanalytical colleague as a Guide to the Underworld and – puzzlingly – was a ‘he’, as was Jung:

Philemon was a pagan and brought with him an Egypto-Hellenic atmosphere with a Gnostic colouration. His figure first occurred to me in the following dream.

There was a blue sky, like the sea, covered not by clouds but by flat brown clods of earth… Suddenly there appeared from the right a winged being sailing across the sky. I saw that it was an old man with the horns of a bull. He held a bunch of four keys, one of which he clutched as if he were about to open a lock. He had the wings of a kingfisher with its characteristic colours…

They held interesting discussions together:

In my fantasies I held conversations with him, and he said things which I had not consciously thought. For I observed clearly that it was he who spoke, not I. He said I treated thoughts as if I generated them myself, but in his view thoughts were like animals in the forest, or people in a room, or birds in the air.

Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections: Confrontation with the Unconscious

I can also ‘see’ – or at any rate dream of – my own Unconscious sometimes. He tends to be wearing a long, black coat like Sherlock Holmes. Sometimes we walk together on a beach under a black sky. Somewhere in the distance is a power station (haven’t yet worked out why). A dark sea laps against a pebbly shore and an alternative ‘me’ seems to be rising up out of the water, like Venus on the half-shell (only plainer). Sometimes he is walking up ahead a way. Sometimes he is in a cottage in the middle of a forest. It is night, as usual.  He is putting logs on the fire and peering into the flames. I never see his face. He never looks directly at me and yet I am not afraid of him. I feel I must address him with courtesy and not expect too much; I request, knowing that he may choose not to comply; I question, knowing that there may be only silence. We are like nations, hitherto at war. We need each other, if we are to go forward. At the moment we are engaged in negotiating an exchange of prisoners across a mist-shrouded border.

He uses pictures rather than words, the man in the black overcoat. I struggle – though less so as time goes on – to ‘catch’ his images as they flicker across my consciousness – and to interpret them. For instance – I’d been mulling over that sense of existing ‘on the borders’ between one world and another, as described (with some difficulty) in Strange stars appear in our skies. As I fell asleep I think I had been asking him for help, for more clarity about his side of the border.

I woke up suddenly with an image of stars – weird, huge stars, a bit like stars on top of a Christmas tree. Then it occurred to me that they were the stars from Van Gough’s painting The Starry Night which I had chosen to illustrate Strange stars. It was like he was saying “Beginning…” It was almost like the start of one of the legal dictation tapes I used to have to type up: We’re talking about… As if he was defining the subject. 

I pictured Starry Night once more, with a kind of question mark. Beginning? And with something like impatience the weird, huge stars flashed back twice in quick succession – “Yes, beginning!”

To be clear, I am not describing seeing things or hearing voices. (I hope not, anyway: if you hear no more from me on La Tour Abolie it may be that the Men in White Coats have arrived and carted me off in the van with the barred windows.) At no time did I see anything with my physical eyes or hear anything with my physical ears: rather, an image appeared in my mind and a meaning – after a second or two’s delay – swam up and attached itself to the image. The meaning – you seem to get to it by lateral thinking. You need to let your mind slide sideways or dance around it. It seems to me like an alternative, more sophisticated language: more comprehensive; more economical – and you’re hearing it with something other than your brain.

Sometimes I even get micro-flashes of what feel like past – or otherlives. I say other, because I suspect all lives are simultaneous. It’s almost like freeze frame. I know they’re past lives but I don’t know how I know, except that in at least one of them I have an aerial view – I’ll be swooping down a green valley, for example, and there’s a battle going on. Yet I’ve never seen such a battle, or such a valley, and I’ve never been able to fly. As far as I know….

The other thing about Subconscious is he seems to want to ‘send’ in waves. There may be months… years, sometimes… when I forget all about him and then suddenly it’s like someone battering on your mind’s door as he tries really hard to get through, or possibly reconfigure ‘updates’ silently downloaded in advance, so that they start to make sense. It’s almost like when subconscious ‘data’ arrives it’s randomised, or encoded and has to be incorporated into an overall pattern.

We’re like people from different countries, my Unconscious and I. We’re marooned on a desert island together without a dictionary. Of necessity we’re having to start from scratch by pointing at stuff and repeating – palm tree in your language, palm tree in my language, leaf in my language, leaf in your language. Cocoanut, sand, sea…

I frequently ask myself why I keep on with the writing. None of the earlier motives or explanations seem relevant now. I am never going be loved and appreciated and interviewed on intellectual TV programmes about my latest, wonderful, literary achievement. I am never going to write a best-selling novel, or any novel – and I probably never was going to because (as I now know) I don’t possess the ability to sustain that level of focus on a single project for months or years, especially when there’s no guarantee, or even likelihood, of success. As I’ve grown older I’ve sensed the skill-level increasing even as the ability – or even the desire – to grind nobly on with some literary Lost Cause or Herculean Labour, has been decreasing. I now realise I was always a butterfly, a synthesist – a finder of patterns and joiner-together of seemingly disparate things. Writing has remained the Special Interest but simply refuses to narrow itself down any further. That is the category: everything.

No point at all in continuing to write, and yet I do. And I think I do because of him – the man in the black overcoat – the one by the beach, whose face I never get to see. It’s because writing is, at the moment, still the best way for him to get through. I’m still an infant at the direct, picture-sending method of communication, but indirectly, through the writing, much more gets through, and sticks.

I have often agonised – why ever did I choose – or was I given – this writing obsession? It’s never done me any good – so what was I supposed to use it for? And the answer seems to be – it’s not for you to use it, it’s for it to use you.

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The small raine down can raine

But I believe that lovers should be tied together. Thrown into the ocean in the worst of weather. And left there to drown.

Just in case the whole picture doesn’t come out – this is the whole text of this anonymous piece of graffiti. Is it written on flesh, or just something flesh-coloured? Is that a lopsided heart for a signature, or a wonky B?

It’s poetry, isn’t it? Maybe unintentional. But why full stops where there might be commas? What sort of sad, bitter or reflective frame of mind might someone be in, to even think of writing it?

It reminds me of an Irish song – Constant Lovers. I’ll just give you the two last verses:

Then she flung her arms wide and she took a great leap / From the cliffs that were high to the billows so deep / Saying: “The rocks of the ocean shall be my death bed / And the shrimps of the sea shall swim over my head.”

And now every night at six bells they appear / When the moon it is shining and the stars they are clear / Those two constant lovers with each other’s charms / Rolling over and over in each other’s arms.

I first heard it sung by the Copper Brothers. Once heard, both the tune and the words stay with you – like those doomed and constant lovers of long ago.

What on earth got me started on this tack? Oh yes, marginalia. I was thinking about another famous poem, supposed to have been written in the margins of a medieval religious manuscript and found many centuries later and set to music.

Westron wynde, when wilt thou blow / The small raine down can raine. / Cryst, if my love were in my armes / And I in my bedde again!’

This seems an unlikely thing for a bored young monk to have written on a cold and rainy day, when he should have been concentrating on his illuminating. Although I don’t know…

I was trying to remember which muse-deserted author scribbled an impassioned Come to me again, o mon bon… in a margin, but I can’t. And apparently Google can’t either. I do believe there’s a word for something someone Googles for the first time? A Googly or a Froogly or something? I thought Google knew everything. Perhaps I just misquoted.

I had a quick flick through some of my own books in the hope of retrieving some deathless marginalia – for when I become famous. In Pen to Paper by Pamela Frankau I appear to have pencilled this:

‘The sleeping and the dead are but as pictures; ‘tis the eye of childhood that fears a painted devil’ Macbeth. I see this is in response to the following Pamela paragraph:

Though a mort of human sins and troubles come solely from a lack of imagination, its possession may likewise engage you in unprofitable exercises:- Lying; slandering; over-anxiety; over-embroidery; painting devils on the walls, other people’s walls as well as your own.

I have a sharp ear for a quote. She’s calling to mind some specific literary devil, I thought, and I was right. Wasn’t I? Nice to have been right about something, in a long lifetime of having been wrong about most things.

In the front of Jung: Selected Writings (my most dog-eared and thumbed-through book) I find a sad little pencilled list – one of my many Plans. I had been going through a bad time, psychologically (hence the desperate thumbing through Jung since I couldn’t afford a psychotherapist). I was trying to make plans for leaving my husband and had scribbled:

? P/T job – move first – when do you have to start paying? ? Career – library – ask after work ? work – help

I’ve always found life-planning difficult. When do you have to start paying what, I wonder? Rent, probably. P/T is my shorthand for Part Time. Was I really going to ask about employment in the library? Perhaps I was just going to the library after work, to ask about something else. Underneath I’ve written:

Anima – Persona + projection 96

God & unconscious same entity? 329

Conscious growing out of unconscious 218

Definition of intuition 219

(The numbers are page references.) But what a mixture a mind is at any given moment. The one mind battling to disentangle anima from persona, God from the unconscious, and wondering if it could find work by going to the library, and when exactly rent might be payable. I can sort of feel the state I was in. I remember driving around for two years, holding imaginary conversations with imaginary Psychotherapists, with Jung, with God – with anyone who might be listening, trying to sort it all out. One day, I thought, everything will suddenly become clear. I will Understand.

Still waiting.

And in Aesop’s Fables (yes, I found my Aesop’s Fables) in really dreadful handwriting, strangely young to have found the words worth defacing Aesop for, I have written

Wherefore, seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight…

And there it stops. Google does know this one: Hebrews 12:1. But why on earth was I reading Hebrews at that age? Or even the Bible? Maybe I just liked the sound of the words.

Maybe I’ll go back to scribbling in my own books again. If only to provide myself with a tiny surprise or two, little mysteries to be solved in my decrepitude when the weather’s too rough to get out with the shopping trolley; when the warm, springtime Westron Wynde has once more failed to blow and the small raine down can raine.

PS: Just found those words. Should have Googled them earlier. They’re part of a song by someone or something called Bright Eyes, called A Perfect Sonnet:

Well, I do like the words. Not too sure about the music.