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  Brian Dillon        

‘Time which antiquates Antiquities, and hath an art to make dust of all things, hath yet spared these minor monuments.’
Sir Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia

‘This is the time. And this is the record of the time.’
Laurie Anderson, ‘From the Air’

So many things of rarity and observation

There are, I’m sure, individuals and families for whom the objects they have inherited from deceased loved ones comprise an uninterrupted corridor into the past: historians of the stock of mementoes who consider it their duty to arrange and classify objects with all the dendritic intricacy of a researcher delineating a family tree. But I have never been much impressed by the genealogist’s labours. The impulse to trace methodically one’s family history through official documents and scraps of correspondence seems as weird to me as the archival fever of those households in which family snapshots are slipped into crackling albums, chronological depositories which assure the viewer of a frictionless unfolding of previous homes, notable occasions and beloved physiognomies. I fail completely to identify with this calm acceptance of time’s implacable advance (or with its corollary: the discovery, in words or pictures, of familial secrets, long-forgotten or suppressed scandal). Instead, I have gradually surrounded myself with objects which trace the most random pathways into the past I am now trying to map. I feel myself dispersed, fragmented among these relics, quite unable to ft them into a logical sequence. I can dimly imagine such a story; a whole narrative, properly autobiographical, a chronicle replete with precise dates and an unstoppable propulsion towards the sort of self-knowledge that can conceive of itself as some kind of culmination. These props, in their solid significance, would then furnish the stage of a more vivid and visible drama. But I cannot write it; time and again I bump my faculty of recall against the edges of the things themselves, hopelessly inarticulate reminders of nothing other than their own obtuse persistence.

I wonder if there is not actually a certain pride at work in my abject failure to make of these things a coherent image of the world I would like to remember. It is, after all, the dreadful privilege of the orphan to be able to forget precise chronology (there is nobody there to remind the newly bereaved almost-adult of dates and occasions), and so one invents a universe out of unverifiable impressions and self-serving revisions. Once it has been locked into the prehistory of bereavement, there is a kind of seduction to the memorial fragment: every detail becomes telling, each rescued object a reminder of a vanished era. But I cannot say that these things summon up a story, only that they mark out a space which is immovably still that of their original homes. The double bulwark of my parents’ deaths seals a watertight chamber in which to dream everything on the other side of the divide as a storehouse of memories all the more alluring for being glimpsed through the thick portal of mourning. The objects I now attempt to describe are submerged, as if they could not survive in the corrosive air of a clear recollection, and so must be left to drift and settle in their strange submarine resting place, becoming ever more inaccessible as they calcify into myth.

I remember a small plastic snow-globe which used to sit on a shelf in the living room of my grandfather’s house in Kerry. It partook of a modest and immediately decipherable narrative: it was a reminder of a place that somebody (my grandfather, my grandmother, or one of their daughters?) had visited. That place has vanished from my memory; I cannot summon the little landscape which the globe enclosed at all, nor the inscription which I am certain was to be read on its base. But the globe still conjures up the objects with which it was surrounded. Its smooth surface was dotted with condensation produced each morning by the competing weather system of the steam from a kettle below. (This was the kettle in which my grandfather, rising early, would delight me with his economical habit of boiling an egg in the water with which he made his tea. Occasionally, disastrous results ensued.) On the wall opposite the shelf where this, my favourite of the house’s many ornaments, resided, hung a heavily framed Sacred Heart picture. A yellowing label at the bottom recorded, on a few dotted lines, the names of the family: my grandparents, my mother, her two brothers and three sisters. It also included another child who had died at the age of four, and who had never lived here, though I always imagined my infant uncle playing in the places I did. Between these two poles of the room, a universe of familiar objects expanded around me. At one end a vast, mottled, brown-and-cream-coloured range served for heating and cooking. An electric cooker in the tiny kitchen was a concession to visitors; I don’t think my grandfather ever used it. Although I was regularly warned not to approach the range, I was fascinated by its paraphernalia: a collection of thick blackened iron implements for lifting the heavy discs sunk into its top so that a pot could be placed above the fire; a tapered lever of the same heft and hue, used only to prise open the doors on the front; a slim poker with which my mother would stoke the embers. So imposing was the whole edifice that it was always a surprise to see its fiery interior revealed: otherwise, it looked as if it was made of solid iron to its core.

At the other extreme of the living room, everything was cool, fragile and hollow. In one corner was a tall wooden cabinet, painted pale green. A small, meshed rosette of metal set into the door served to ventilate shelves that had once held perishable foodstuffs. Its lower shelves now supported huge, tottering piles of crockery, while on the upper strata I was always surprised, each year, to find jars and bottles left over from the summer before (I think I was half convinced that their contents aged less rapidly in this house than they would have at home). To the right of this cupboard (it was not a cupboard; it was a ‘press’: the word has only just resurfaced) was a refrigerator that seemed, by its design, to date from the 1950s: a huge object, round-bellied and noisy, which put an end, when I was about ten years old, to the regular trips to my aunt and uncle’s nearby house to collect milk, butter and meat. Drinking water, however, was still fetched several times a day in a bucket that inevitably lost a good quarter of its contents as you staggered back along the road.

In my memory, all of this orbits around the colourful interior of the snow-globe. The thing, acquired as a memento, I suppose, of some holiday or pilgrimage, has become a reminder of another world: the universe of my childhood holidays. As I remember it now, its reservoir of fluid seemed gradually to deplete over the years, so that the blizzard which it had once given me such pleasure to set in motion was in later years a shallow and dismal furry, descending to earth abruptly and surreally (the phenomenon would not be out of place in a Magritte painting) from the empty air above. I could never work out where this watery atmosphere had gone. If it had evaporated, then surely the integrity of this miniature world was threatened, and the entire contents ought to leak away, leaving only a dry residue.


Objects such as this once mysterious orb are examples of a certain sort of kitsch: that species of miniaturist whimsy inherited from the Victorian obsession with capturing and preserving whole worlds in nuce. (The habit was not unrelated to the mid-nineteenth-century discoveries of geologists concerning the age of the earth and its infinitely slow alteration: each household could now watch, fascinated, its own domestic image of evolution.) In her study of the kitsch sensibility, The Artificial Kingdom, Celeste Olalquiaga might be describing just such an object when she writes that ornamental orbs ‘evoke through visual imagery an intensity of feeling that is otherwise inexpressible: it belongs to the pre-symbolic realm of experience of the unconscious, where events organize and articulate themselves in a non-verbal language sensitive to the most subtle emotional intricacies’.

A few foggy minutes into Citizen Kane, one such silent relic becomes the emblem of a long-unspoken pain. Orson Welles whispers the talismanic word which will set the film’s elaborate mnemonic machinery into laborious (and, for its first protagonist, the newspaperman who is charged with reconstituting Kane’s life, quite fruitless) motion. Keen viewers of the film, attuned to the devious mechanics of Welles’s cinematic puzzle, will have spotted (though rarely on a first viewing) the logical oddity of that scene: there is nobody in the room to hear the dying man’s last utterance. The entire protracted effort to reassemble the biography of the deceased magnate around this enigmatically enfolded word is in fact a complex delusion, a trick played on the memory of the audience as much as on the endlessly frustrated decoder of the Kane myth. The feint succeeds because he film is not really about words at all (this despite the lengthy narratives – bitter, drunken, self-serving or nostalgic – offered by its reminiscing interviewees) but about things. The little glass snow-globe which falls from Kane’s hand as he dies is, by a cunning symbolic sleight, the lens through which, at the end of the film, we see another object: the ‘real’ Rosebud, the childhood sled which is a reminder of Kane’s lost past, now consigned to the fames. The glass memento – pocketed, we remember, after Kane has destroyed the bedroom of his second wife – is a substitute for this other, more tangible reminder, which had already (as the film’s closing shot of Kane’s prodigious accumulation of useless things reveals) been lost in the museum of his past. The most precious object turns out to be only distantly – that is, poetically, metaphorically – related to the past; it conjures up, in the end, only another object.

One does not need to have acquired such a mad profusion of things as the fictional Charles Foster Kane to be moved by the final image of Welles’s film: his deceased hero’s treasured plaything ravaged in the furnace of his vast, hubristic home, the varnish on the sled boiling away to reveal, for a second, the beloved name. Nor need we live our lives on quite so melodramatic a scale in order to recognize the secret affinity between the things of our childhoods and their later avatars. Every life is rich with these hidden correspondences between things, submerged collusions between one time and another which are fully expressed only at the moment when one concentrates hard on the object, weighing its presence against other, lost but still imaginable, things. Whole industries exist to convince us of the essential serenity and comfort of such an instant: the warm glow of a memory lovingly caressed. But there is something terrible, too, about the way a dumb artifact can lead us back to the past, if only because its very existence is at odds with the passing of the bodies to which it might once have attached itself, or with which it once shared the space of daily life. That stark contrast makes us fixate too on the objects themselves, as if we can never quite escape the blank obtrusion of dead things into a space, that of personal memory, which we would rather imagine as altogether more fluid and ambiguous.

I have occasionally revolted against the tyranny of the memento, and am sometimes surprised that anything at all has survived my periodic fury at the mere existence of the things around me. The consequent purges have ensured that my stock of childish mementoes (that is, of things I actually owned, as opposed to those objects I have inherited) is pitifully meagre. I can count with certainty only two things. The first is a tiny yellow teddy bear: tissue-stuffed, one-eyed since the Saturday afternoon in the mid-1970s when my father bought it for my brother Paul, who quickly plucked out its right eye and abandoned it. Sewn up and restored to life (which means, in the society of toys, that it was given a name), it survived for years as the diminutive steerer of several cardboard-box buses and trucks, before resting in a bedside locker where, miraculously, it escaped all subsequent redundancy drives. The second object is a decrepit volume of fairy stories by Enid Blyton: an uncharacteristically gruesome collection of moral tales wherein a succession of hapless and gothically illustrated characters are forced to atone for such sins as talking too much and wishing for an endless supply of porridge (the influence of the traditionally ruthless Germanic fairy tale seems to have briefly overtaken the author, but I knew I was safe at least from either of these latter temptations). On the title page, I have inscribed thickly my name and address, followed by the announcement of a generous reward should the book be found and returned to its owner.

I still cannot quite believe that this is the sum total of my hoard, but neither a mental tally of possible hiding places, nor a thorough search through ancient boxes containing numerous relics of later years, will reveal any other object predating the first of several adolescent purges. I remember the excitement of these bouts of destruction, my sense that all of ‘that’ was at last at an end. In the course of a decade or so, I disposed of toys; books; diaries; drawings; a tiny set of wooden rosary beads given to me on the occasion of my First Communion; a prayer book of the same vintage which contained, I imagined, a photograph of the actual, terrifying moment of transubstantiation (until I realized, years later, as I looked at it for the last time, that the strange freshly remnant reflected in a chalice was in fact a priest’s knuckle); half a dozen penknives of various sizes and degrees of keenness; bits of plastic jewellery spat out by chewing-gum machines (one of which reminded me for months, secretly, of the pale, red-haired daughter of a family who holidayed next door to us three years in a row); a small golden ring into the empty socket of which I had inserted the hand-drawn emblem of my elusive hero, the Scarlet Pimpernel; an alarmingly illuminated toy machine gun which, its twin barrels sparking and wheezing, was, disappointingly, not at all the rugged ‘riddler’ I longed for one Christmas; a pair of toy binoculars given to me by my paternal grandfather, which, once I had tired of spying on imagined enemies at the bottom of the garden, I had reversed and trained on my room, turning everything I owned into a faraway land, just about to vanish over the horizon.

In an essay on ‘The Philosophy of Toys’, Charles Baudelaire distinguishes two childish attitudes to playthings: reverence and iconoclasm. There are children for whom the toy is a sort of diminutive deity, a household god to be tended and worshipped, treated with a respect that precludes even touch. The poet warns: ‘I would be quick to be on my guard against these men-children.’ And there are those who cannot tolerate the toy’s mystery, who desire immediately, in a frenzy of curiosity, to discover the ‘soul’ of the thing: ‘It is on the more or less swift invasion of this desire that depends the life of a toy. I do not find it in me to blame this infantile mania; it is a first metaphysical tendency.’ Perhaps a corresponding typology distinguishes our attitudes to the things of our childhoods once we have begun to think of ourselves as adults. There are individuals who, as the view recedes, institute a kind of private curatorial programme, reminding themselves regularly of the once innocent (now forced, though still pleasurable) import of a particular object. But there are also those of us who see in the collection only an intolerable exigency, a demand for a continuity that is unbearable. I was always ready to plunge the souls of things into perdition.

I must have recognized this tendency in myself at an early age. It was the source, I remember, of some considerable guilt in my teenage years, when I would curse my twelve-year-old self for having recklessly got rid of numerous comic books, notebooks, toy soldiers  and a once beloved volume that recounted the adventures, on a stolen motorbike, of mischievous twin penguins, Pen and Gwen. Despite these regrets, I gave in, time and again, to the same impulse to start over, to rid myself of all material ties to the past. When the time came to vacate the family home, I recall, I felt the oppressive air of a whole house full of objects that could not fail, as they were torn from their dusty nooks, to remind me of years which (for years) I had been doing my best to forget. I had now to struggle with my natural urge to bin the lot. I was forced to choose, and in choosing I would ensure that the little I took with me would comprise a new stock of mementoes, their power enhanced by their rarity. There were objects which I was determined would have no place in my new, forgetful life. A large silver crucifix had stood on the dressing table in my bedroom for several years, inherited (morbidly, I now reflected) from an old man with whom my father’s father had shared a nursing-home room in the last months of his life, and placed there by my mother. I had immediately loathed the weight it added to my already fretful relationship with the pious objects around me. I turned on it now with a determined spite, waiting until I was alone in the house before unscrewing its heavy base and dismembering the Christ figure. Had I been able, I think I would have torn the sturdy metal of the cross itself to pieces, all the while aware of the essential idiocy of the gesture, but at least assured that this useless reminder of a faith which had saved nobody could no longer follow me on my fight from the house.

Fortunately, a few objects escaped my tearful fury at being reminded of what exactly I was leaving behind. These things are all, I realize, comparatively small: I have hung on to nothing which I could not hold in my hand, cram into a suitcase or neglect on a shelf in plain and unthinking view of my daily life. I cannot pretend that they bear the memorial significance of Charles Foster Kane’s fractured ornament, but they are, in some sense, all I have left. In their silent persistence, they call up other objects, other times and places; they attest to the workings of a memory which seems unable to leave them alone, which is forever settling once more on their surfaces. As in those opening moments of Citizen Kane, the path through these ghostly things is lit by a fragment of glass.

‘Things’ is an excerpt from Brian Dillon’s In the Dark Room (Fitzcarraldo Editions, London, 2018)

Brian Dillon was born in Dublin in 1969. His books include Essayism, The Great Explosion (shortlisted for the Ondaatje Prize), Objects in the Mirror: Essays, I Am Sitting in a Room, Sanctuary and Tormented Hope: Nine Hypochondriac Lives (shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize). His writing has appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times, London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, Bookforum, Frieze and Artforum. He is the U.K. editor of Cabinet magazine, and teaches at the Royal College of Art. Originally published in 2005, In the Dark Room is his first book and won the Irish Book Award for non-fiction. 

Copyright © Brian Dillon, 2005.
Reproduced by permission of Fitzcarraldo Editions


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