In Berlin Childhood around 1900, a series of essays written in the 1930s and unpublished in his own lifetime, Walter Benjamin uses the objects, interiors and experiences of his childhood to explore the relationship between people, memory and things. One object, the ‘reading box’, a box full of lettered tablets with which to form words, stands out:
everyone has encountered certain things which occasioned more lasting habits than other things. Through them, each person developed those capabilities which helped to determine the course of his life. And because—so far as my own life is concerned—it was reading and writing that were decisive, none of the things that surrounded me in my early years arouses greater longing than the reading box.
(As an aside, Benjamin’s reading box always reminds me of the cardboard folders with slots to put individual words in that were used to teach sentence structure in the mid-1980s. What were they called? We had individual ones and giant class ones. Evidently they – along with teaching sentence structure – are now horribly out of fashion.)
Nobody, to my mind, has ever written about things as beautifully as Benjamin does in these essays. But most interesting here is his discussion of movement. For Benjamin’s memory of the reading box is not only of the object itself, but of the repetitive movement of his hand in using it. What he seeks in his longing for the box is his ‘entire childhood, as concentrated in the movement by which my hand slid the letters into the groove, where they would be arranged to form words’.
In 1999, my Nana died. When her children were sorting through her things, my aunt gave me a small pot that had been on her dressing table. ‘She wanted you to have that’, my aunt explained, ‘because when you were little you spent hours just taking the lid off and putting it back on again’. I have a vague conscious memory of this. She kept her rings in it and I remember that I liked the sound that the lid made as it hit the base of the pot. But, mostly, it was the feeling of the two parts of the pot fitting together that I remember being most satisfying. The pot is in my living room now, on a shelf. When I look at it, I do think of Nana. But that memory is nothing compared to the feelings evoked by simply taking the lid off. For a split second, in that movement, I am five or six and I can feel the velvety fabric of the dressing table stool under my knees as I put the lid back on. Like Benjamin and his reading box, this pot ‘is thoroughly bound up … with my childhood’.
(Please forgive the blurry pictures; I will update with better ones a.s.a.p.)
In recent years, historians have become much more open to using material sources. But I don’t think I’ve come across anyone who has yet managed to really capture the importance of movement to the way that objects are used, preserved or remembered. Why is this? Benjamin’s reading box lived in his memory; the object itself was long gone:
My hand can still dream of this movement, but it can no longer awaken so as to actually perform it. By the same token, I can dream of the way I once learned to walk. But that doesn’t help. I now know how to walk; there is no more learning to walk.
My Nana’s pot is bound up with my memory. It is not just an object, but a dynamic link with a moment, or many moments, of my own past. It is people, experience, time and emotion. Benjamin longed for a past that couldn’t be fully recovered without access to the reading box. But we, as historians, are faced with the opposite problem: we have access to the reading box, or whatever our sources happen to be, but not to the memories attached to it. They have survived, but can we really gain any sense of what they ‘meant’ to the people that have owned or used them? Or are we attempting the impossible in trying to recover a dynamic experience that has been and gone and is no more? Is there ‘no more learning to walk’?
This blog is intended as a kind of online commonplace book to think about these questions, and more, concerning the use of material objects as historical evidence; it is no more than a few notes, some photographs, descriptions, quotes and useful links. If anyone else enjoys it or finds it useful, that’s a bonus, of course, and I’d be grateful for any comments you might have. I am not, as I’m sure will be painfully obvious, an expert on material culture, but rather a cultural historian who has recently become fascinated with the possibilities of material sources. So all input and correction is very welcome indeed. Its title is also Benjamin’s, from the same essay on the reading box:
It may be that what makes the forgotten so weighty and so pregnant is nothing but the trace of misplaced habits in which we no longer find ourselves. Perhaps the mingling of the forgotten with the dust of our vanished dwellings is the secret of its survival.
I’ve just written a PhD thesis on the publication and reception of Karl Marx’s works in Britain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But – don’t worry – I don’t plan to talk too much about Marx, partly because I hope to use this blog as an informal way of thinking beyond my thesis and partly because he didn’t actually have all that much to say about the ‘thingyness’ of things (some more about this at a later date, I’m sure). While I did focus on the ‘materiality’ of many of the sources that I was writing about – mostly books – here I’m not limited to a particular topic, trying to develop an overall argument or really making any argument at all, so I can be a lot more experimental. It’s hard to write evocatively about an object – to capture its look, feel, smell, or movement– and to balance physical description, sensory experience and historical context effectively. We can’t all be Walter Benjamin, more’s the pity. So this is a modest attempt to get a little better, one thing at a time.