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.

Published by pernodel

Children’s literature critic and author of books for children

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