Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Object in Question

The relationship between humans and animals has a long, splendid history. You have distinct animal benchmarks in your life, companions and role models of high order. Recitation of their names evokes a sinuous pattern of warmth and ongoing connection. 

The Intimate Bond, a most recent book from an author you've guided through many a publication has to do with such relationships, its pages becoming a meaningful vision of humans in their dealings with animals and the reverse perspective of how animals were domesticated. In the bargain, we see the history of how the association has had benefits and disadvantages for the human species and the animal.

Another relationship intrigues you in the broad, general sense and in the more personal, even idiosyncratic sense--the relationship between humans and objects. This same relationship occupied the thoughts of a contemporary thinker, Martin Heidegger (1119-1976), whom you've consulted in your quest for understanding of the nature of self, of being, understanding and learning, by no means in a scholarly sense, rather to help you in your attempts to construct fictions that seem real.

Setting explodes with importance in such attempts because of the need to place your characters somewhere tangible if your fiction is to convey the sense of reality you hope to achieve. When you think of settings, your mind's eye conjures landscapes, interiors, vehicles, decorations. If the setting is historical, you know from experience that readers of historical fiction like the details of clothing and of furniture, drapery, rugs, works of art; in other words, objects.

The choice of objects in a setting helps define the characters who put them there and use them. You are not alone in judging characters by the objects with which they surround themselves, and in certain of the critical theory classes for writers you present, you're fond of using an example of a man with a fishing rod and reel as a significant example of how a prop, an object, defines and articulates a character. 

"Consider a man," you tell your students, "whom we see showing more concern for and taking better care of his rod and reel than the concern and care he shows for his wife. The rod and reel may be a primary source of quality protein for the man's family, which is one explanation for the care he lavishes on them, but that focused concern for objects also speaks to the role of the wife in that marriage and, indeed,among those of a similar social caste.

Using the same fishing rod and reel and a different social class, you are able to demonstrate another example of how things help define people. Let's say this owner of rod and reel is affluent, takes poor care of his objects, allowing them to rust. If we see this family setting in contact with the previous one, we may be led to assume this owner and abuser of rod and reel might in one way or others, show a neglect for his wife and children.

Heidegger is at some pains to distinguish an object from a thing, even to the point of showing how a thing was once an object to some human. For reasons of pure sentiment, you've kept two of the delicate, beautiful china tea cups your mother prized as well as an elaborate tea pot which you have never used. Your fondness for coffee does not preclude your interest in tea or, for that matter, tea brewed in a tea pot rather than a single serving using a cup and tea bag.

You also have and use with some regularity a small dish your late wife purchased at some yard sale for a dime. The person who sold her the dish for a dime considered the dish a thing. Each time you use it, you think of it as an object. 

Unless you give the tea cups and pot to one of your nieces, where they will continue to remain objects, they will find their way to some yard sale or other, through no fault of their own demoted from object to thing. In all probability, the fine bone china tea cups will sell for ten or fifteen cents each.

The Richard III of Shakespeare's play is better known to most of us than the actual, historical Richard, in no small measure because of his urgent, from-the-heart plea to the heavens, "My kingdom for a horse." 

As yet untold stories reside in the desires you have had for various objects, for the ones with you now surround yourself at this juncture of your life, and your range of experience as yet other objects in your life have been demoted to things. At this writing, and for reasons you cannot explain with any sense of comprehensive coverage, your kingdom, such as it is, would go for a stuffed dog, faded blue, one button eye missing, a true relic of the Great Depression into which you and he were born. His name was, and shall always be for you, Prosperity.


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