Eggs One and Two

The first two of my almost-a-dozen eggs are the most straightforward pair:

WP_000026They are monochromatic white, with no designs or added features.  They are just eggs–or rather, really, not even quite eggs, for the bases that allow them to stand up join seamlessly into their egglike parts, making them look like eggs that come with their own already-attached egg cups–or, really, more like miniature versions of those bodiless mannequin heads that you sometimes see in stores in hat displays. They are actually, in their closeness to the appearance of real eggs, the most abstract and least representational of the entire almost-a-dozen.  They could be read just as meaningless shapes rather than as trying to represent eggs.  Putting them on a table alongside real eggs then might seem like an interesting comment on egginess and eating, on egg shapes that are edible and egg shapes that are not–or they might just sit there looking like shakers with vaguely ovoid tops and not evoke the idea of eggs at all.   They are, unlike most of the other nine eggs in my collection, not the least bit cute, and not the least bit evocative of any of our standard linguistic connections with eggs and egginess–birds, chicks, laying, etc.

Not Quite a Dozen Eggs

In my salt and pepper collection, it appears that I have a grand total of eleven eggs.  Here they are:

eggs

In a series of posts over the next while, I’m planning to look at each of the six sets that includes them separately, to see what the salt and pepper miniverse (at least as represented in my house)  thinks about eggs.

Polyamory

Recently, my friend Joseph Thomas made a comment on Facebook that relates to my interest in salt and pepper shakers:

What I think is wonderful about salt n pepper shakers: although they come as a pair, they so often aren’t bound together, save by their maker’s intent or owner’s whim. Thus, even pairs “meant for each other” can have dalliances with other shakers or mills, and should one’s mate be smashed, the remaining mill (or shaker) can make a nice home with a crew of very different shakers. A metaphor for polyamory, these anthropomorphized little critters.

As I thought about that, I realized how very true it is.  Earlier last year, I wrote a number of posts here exploring my particular fascination with the “go-with” aspect of shaker sets, and how it takes some insight into the mental activity of the person who chose them to go with each other to understand just what it is that connects them.  As I said then,

Some of the more interesting sets of salt and pepper shakers I’ve seen in antique shops are ones that are not in fact, clearly sets–or at least were not necessarily designed to be the sets they now are being sold as.  Not surprisingly, for salt-and-peppers consist of two objects that are in fact physically detached from each other.  It’s quite possible, then, that one of the two might break, or that the two might end up somehow separated from each other–a result of a nasty divorce settlement, perhaps, or a simple error in packing when a roommate leaves, or a salt incorrectly grabbed up along with the remains of dinner and thrown in the garbage, while it’s now sadly lonely pepper partner remains behind.  What more obvious thing for a store owner to do when such a sad single shows up in the shop but  to find some other woeful isolate that might by some stretch of the imagination be considered to go with it, and try to sell them as a pair?  And lo, as if by magic, they do, sort of become a pair, as would-be purchasers like me look at them and, more or less inevitably, I think, try to decide what is the intended connection between these two objects now identified on their sales tag as a pair.

The paradigm of the pair is powerful.  It can join what some man (or woman or child) has put asunder.  In the shaker universe, linguistic binarism rules.

As Joseph suggests, and if it’s true that the paradigm of the pair is powerful, then paradoxically, then you can defy the connections made by manufacturers and shopkeepers just as easily as you can observe them–be your own deliriously postmodern creator of new pairs, new combinations, new possibilities.  You can become the new god of the shaker miniverse.

Thinking about all that, and in celebration of Joseph’s idea of polyamory, I remember two particular sets I’ve discussed in earlier posts, this one.

armless

And this one:

briefcase and newspaper

Polyamorous perversity then leads me to this combo:

Polyandry

The sexual politics here are pretty astonishing.  Think about it.

I should also say that I have also indulged in some mismatching of pairs in a previous post–the one about Santa Claus giving a big smack to a bunch of bad guys.

The Power of Demotic Objects to Tell Grand Narratives

Be patient, please.  Eventually I am going to get around to talking about this set of salt and pepper shakers:

casa loma

But first, I need some context.

A friend who knows of my interest in shaker sets sent me a link to a review in the New York Times Book Review of The Innocence of Objects, a book describing a museum the novelist Orhan Pamuk created while writing his 2008 novel The Museum of Innocence.  In the novel, it seems, after a brief love affair with a distant cousin, the narrator Kemal obsessively amasses objects that evoke their relationship in 1970s Istanbul. He has become, he says, “the anthropologist of my own experience.”  The reviewer, potter and writer Edmund de Waal, suggests that Kemal realizes that “objects beget narrative, just as stories need objects.”  Apparently Pamuk realized that, too, for he collected objects to recreate the museum his character created.  One of the vitrines in the museum he made actually includes a salt shaker: “this saltshaker: Just as she picked it up a rusty Soviet tanker rumbled past the window, the violence of its propeller shaking the bottles and glasses on our table, and she held it for a good long time.”

de Waal calls The Innocence of Objects “a manifesto for the power of demotic objects to tell grand narratives,” and quotes Pamuk:

If objects are not uprooted from their environs and their streets, but are situated with care and ingenuity in their natural homes, they will already portray their own stories.

Well, then: my salt and pepper shakers are objects.  I have collected them.  Can this museum of Pamuk’s help me to understand them better?  Is there a way in which they, too, portray a story?

The most obvious answer to that question is: no.  What Pamuk described in the novel and what he then created in his own reality was a collection of objects with personal resonances for his character and himself–things that had power for him as an evocation of a personal past because his character or he himself had once interacted with them, in times that now figure prominently in memory.  The shakers in my collection tell me nothing about my own past, for they never figured in that past.  They didn’t enter my life until they became part of my collection.  Some of them have been in that collection since it began, maybe ten years ago now–and so they carry with them my personal memories of when I got them, who gave them to me–things like that.  They tell the story of some moments of my past, then.  But all those memories are related to the collection itself.  They are not a collection of memories, but rather, memories of collecting.  Ok, so maybe they are then a collection of memories of collecting.  But that makes them quite different form the kind of “museum” of the personal past that Pamuk made.

But while my shakers don’t have any long-standing personal resonances for me, there is still something evocative about them.  They do still, in a way, evoke or maybe just imply a kind of grand narrative of an earlier time, even if it is not my grand narrative.

Once, on the original British version of The Antiques Roadshow, a woman came on to show her collection of children’s shoes.  She had shoes from the eighteenth century onwards, and she said that what made them so interesting to her was in what bad repair they were.  They had signs of use, spots of dirt, holes worn in them, and such.  They had clearly ended up on sale in antique stores and junk shops because they were no longer of use to their previous owners.  But they carried with them signs of that use, evidence of that previous ownership.  The collector then found them deeply evocative, signs of children’s lives once led and now gone.  They were for her, then, powerful demotic objects, ordinary everyday things that implied the grand narrative of people she had never known in a way that seemed to bring those people, and their childhoods and the ends of the childhoods, closer to her.  They were leftovers after the feast that spoke of what the feast was, reminders of  lives once lived.

And in a sense so are my shakers.  For most of them, I think, I was not the first purchaser.  They belonged to someone else–and some of them come with signs of wear, their tails or limbs broken off and such.  they carry with them something of the story of how they were used–evidence of their history.

But more to the point:  even if they did belong to someone else, I have no idea who it was, or what they might have done with them, or why they might have parted with them.  If they are a museum of the past, they are a museum without identifying labels or captions or explanations.  There is no guidebook.  They evoke an absence, a memory wiped out.  As ephemera, cheap souvenirs easily bought and just as easily discarded, they have come to me from somewhere forgotten  and thus become, somehow, a kind of powerful marker of forgetting, a reminder of what is not remembered, what might not even be particularly memorable,  The evoke what they do not and cannot in fact speak of–the absence of memory.

Nor does my “museum” try to place them in their ‘natural’ homes, whatever those were.  For I don’t in fact know what those homes were.  My museum is the set of shelves I’ve placed them on  in my study (as can be seen in the second post on this blog), where they sit en masse and unlabeled, more or less indiscriminately grouped together  They have a new context in my museum–they are there, not primarily as dispensers of salt and pepper, not even as aides-memoires that those of them bought as souvenirs of particular times and places were or as the signs of affection or duty that those of them that have been gifts were.  They are now primarily representatives of binary opposites and racial stereotypes and gender roles and such.  They are, above all, each set of them, just individual components of a collection–another, different set of salt and pepper shakers, another representative of the nature of that peculiar miniverse.

Which brings me back to that set of Casa Loma shakers.

casa loma close

What most interests me about them in the context of “the power of demotic objects to tell grand narratives” is how little access I have to any narrative they might once have told to the right audience, grand or not.   Who once bought this set?  I don’t know.  When and where did they buy it?  I don’t know.  And above all, why did they buy it?  I don’t know.

I actually can’t even begin to figure out why.  It’s identified, literally identified, as a “souvenir of Casa Loma, Canada.”  It’s interesting that it actually says that–that it was made exclusively for the purpose of being a souvenir, and that its self-identification as such presumably led it to be available in a place where someone might be seeking such a souvenir.  But what I don’t get is how, other than its telling us so, it could actually be a souvenir of Casa Loma.  It has nothing to do with Casa Loma in any other way I can think of.  What do two folksy-looking wooden lampposts with pictures of roosters on them have to do with Casa Loma, a noble pile of a mansion built to house a late Victorian Toronto millionaire:

CasaLoma castle

There are no similar lanterns at Casa Loma that I’m aware of .  And there are surely no roosters there either. So what’s the connection?

I found the answer to that question while looking for evidence of distinctive lanterns at Casa Loma online.  While I didn’t find any, I did find this salt and pepper shaker set:

casa loma not

Yes, it’s more or less the same set of lampposts, and with the same roosters.  Only this time, it’s a souvenir, not of Casa Loma, but of an entirely different place: Riviėre de Loup, a town in the province of Quebec.  So the set is apparently, a generic souvenir–once purchasable as a souvenir of a variety of places that it represents or evokes only because it says so, not because of any actual connection between what it represents and the place it stands for.   If my Casa Loma set once evoked a memory of a visit to a previous purchaser of it, it was not, then, because lampposts and roosters ever had anything to do with Casa Loma.  Kt’s because that was the place where the lampposts were purchased.  The imagery, the thing represented is meaningless–the word “souvenir” imprinted on the lampposts tells it all.  If my salt-and-pepper shaker sets don’t evoke their specific past for me, it might be exactly because, as in this case here, they actually don;t even try to evoke anything of significance about the places and occasions they claim to be representing at all.

With thanks to Jerry Griswold for the connection to de Waal and Pamuk.

All Nature Is But Art

Image

This is another set of salt-and-pepper shakers that my son Asa made me, this one a few years ago. As you can see from this view of their tops, he made them of modelling clay formed around an already-existing set of plain ceramic shakers.

Image

I’ve asked Asa for an explanation of what he intended them to represent, but he tells me he’d rather hear how I interpret them. So here goes:

To me, this set is the ultimate expression of the idea of binary opposites. They are an animal–most likely a bear?–and a robot. And they are wearing boxing gloves, as if ready to start a match. What can they be but symbolic representations of the most basic conflicts at the heart of our view of life for us on this planet? The bear, clearly, is nature, the wild. The robot represents what we make of the natural–civilization, perhaps, or artifice–what people create as opposed to what remains as we found it. Asa was clearly intending to make a profound statement about our relationship to the environment, right?

Except, of course, that’s not quite right: for a bear in the wild does not smile, as this one appears to be doing. And a bear in the wild does not put on boxing gloves, or for that matter, what appear to be boxing trunks or any other form of human clothing. Meanwhile, also, robots are equally unlikely to be programmed for boxing. And if they were, how likely is it that they put on human-type boxing gloves? Wouldn’t battering rams be better? So while the two things these creatures represent might be understood as being in a conflict, at war with each other, in an eternal and ongoing symbolic boxing match, the characteristics of the actual creatures they represent have been distorted in order to make them express that conflict symbolically. In this way, then, they are more like allegories or political cartoons than like representations of actual creatures. Or perhaps more likely, they are more like typical creatures of the salt and pepper miniverse than like real bears and robots. They are humanized. They are cute. Despite whatever sizeable dangerous forces they represent, they appear to be entirely and completely harmless. Unlike the ship and wave I discussed in my last post, this pair seem to fit quite readily into my collection. They are, alas, and unlike that ship and wave, not art.

One other thing about this pair: they remind me of my days as a grad student in literature studies many decades ago, before structuralism or deconstruction or cultural studies or feminist studies or queer studies existed,when what was still then called “the New Criticism” was at the height of its power. As New Critics, what we literature students did above all (or even exclusively) was produce close readings, detailed interpretations of poems and novels that teased out the structure or pattern of images and ideas that sustained their plots and stories. And we always wrote essays that had two opposites in their title, like “Love and Hate in Hamlet” or “Appearance and Reality in ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn.'” Back then, there was a common belief amongst the students I knew that, if you couldn’t think of anything else, you could always write an essay about “Appearance and Reality in–” well, in whatever text you’d been assigned to write about. But it was also true that, if all else failed, you could also always write a persuasive essay about “Nature and Artifice in” whatever text you’d been assigned to write about it. We did a lot of talking about nature and artifice, a whole lot. It came naturally to us, and it was the basis of our critical art.  So for me, these shakers of Asa’s remind me of what it was like to be a graduate student back in the sixties.

And come to think of it, maybe it was my grad school training in binary opposites that lies behind my interest in novelty salt and pepper shakers?

And hey, maybe Asa’s set of shakers is actually a clever New Critical interpretation of a favorite of my grad school days, Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” with the bear as the dying generations and the robot as the artificial bird:

The young In one another’s arms, birds in the trees —

Those dying generations—at their song,

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

. . . . . . . . . .

Once out of nature I shall never take

My bodily form from any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

I totally could write an essay about that. Actually, maybe I just did.

Asa’s Ship Comes In

This is the salt and pepper shaker set my son Asa recently made and gave me as a Christmas present:
ship and waveIt actually does work as a set of shakers: as the picture reveals, the mast is held in place by a cork that stops the hole where you can put salt (or pepper), and the bottom of the wave has an opening for a similar cork to allow for the insertion of pepper (or salt); and there are smaller seasoning-sprinkling holes on the deck of the ship and in the indentation on top of the wave where the ship sits.  But for all that, I’m not really sure that this set does fit into my collection, for a number of reasons:

First, it’s unique.  There is in existence only one such ship and one such wave, made by hand by a local artist and fired in a local kiln.  All the other shakers in my collection are individual examples of assembly-line runs, the same or very similar to thousands of other shakers made from the same moulds.  I hadn’t realized it before, but as I think about it now after receiving this new set, I am realizing that knowledge of the run-of-mill shakers’ lack of uniqueness is part both of what makes the shakers interesting to me and what allows me to make fun of them, as I often do.  They represent what their manufacturers thought would be popular enough and sell widely enough to be manufactured in multiples, and so they’re evidence either of mass taste or of someone’s commercially-oriented idea of mass taste.  They are meant to speak to a lot of people (albeit probably not very loudly or very distressingly), and so reveal something about popular values and or a manufacturer’s ideas about popular values.  But Asas’s ship and wave are made to suit just me and my values and my tastes, or maybe even not that–to suit Asa’s values as tastes, with his hope that I’ll like them, too.  They are not making any claim to mass appeal.  Making fun of them (which I don’t want to do anyway, because i really do like them a lot) would not possess the saving grace of being evidence of  more discerning taste or expressing a critique of less discerning taste.

Second, and as quite logically follows from that: Asa’s ship and wave are not cute or adorable.  There is no obvious joke here, and no attempt to make me or any other viewer think of how charmingly vulnerable the ship or the wave are.  The ship has no eyes, the wave no lips or limbs.  While they are miniature versions of a small ship and an ocean wave, there is nothing about the ways in which they are diminished that implies an attitude of defensive superiority or offensive belittling of them.  They are simply small but to scale–and I get no sense from them that part of my response to them should be emerging from their defusing of the power of the ocean or its waves.  While small, the set still conveys a sense of the power of the sea and the relative littleness of the ship in relation to that power.  The jaunty little ship on its own might seem a little cute–but accompanied by  the wave,its littleness has quite other implications.

Third: this shaker set does not in any way seem to invite or imply its inclusion in a larger group of shaker sets–in a collection.  If Asa made more shaker sets representing different objects, I can see how I might want to have those, too.   But I suspect it’d seem wrong to place them all together on the same shelf in a way that advertised their similar collectibility and the fact that someone had committed himself or herself to the act of collecting them. Their point is in no way their participation in a larger group of like objects.  They are not really collectibles.

Fourth, Asa’s shaker captures something that seems quite real, especially about the wave, and yet paradoxically, it really doesn’t look much like a real wave at all.  It seems more like an expression of the movement of a wave–a way of capturing not just what a wave might look like but also what it might feel like to be in a wave’s presence.  Also: a ship and a wave are not the kind of binaries or pairs you usually find in a salt and pepper shaker set because they are in fact, not just in relationship to each or opposite to each other but, as depicted here, I think, in conflict with each other.  The shape and swoop of the wave capture the roiling energy and immense power of the sea,so that the the littleness of the ship perched perilously atop the wave tells a story of the apparent inequality of the battle between ship and stormy sea and perhaps even the indomitability of the invisible sailors on the ship.  The pair seems to me to say something about the relationship between little humans and big natural forces.

Or in other words:  the set is expressive of larger and subtler meanings beyond the fairly obvious ones of most of my shaker sets.  It doesn’t only represent a ship and a wave, or only ask us to consider how cute tiny versions of a ship and a wave can be. It seems to be expressive of the feelings and meanings of the ship, the wave, and their relationship.  Or perhaps it is just expressive in a way that invites interpretations because as a unique product of an imaginative and thoughtful mind it is expressive of the personality that shaped it. It expresses uniqueness.

Or to put it another way: the set aspires to be something more than merely ornamental–to be, in fact, art.  And in my admittedly prejudiced paternal opinion, I think it succeeds at that.  I think it succeeds because it seems to be conveying emotions in a way that invites thoughtfulness about them.  And it is beautiful.  Looking at it is, for me, an aesthetic pleasure.

I think the wave is particularly beautiful–full of energy and implied danger, and yet, at the same time, its energy caught in a fixed moment that allows for contemplation of the sheer visceral pleasure of its subtle and shifting colour combinations and its complex lines.   As I said earlier, it conveys its own uniqueness–as does the ship, in its tidiness and fragility.

And so, much as I like this set, and as pleased as I am to have had it made for me, I have to conclude that it’s a failure as an addition to my shaker set collection.  It’s much too good to belong there.

More of Asa’s work is on view on his website.