This review of Steven Connor’s Paraphernalia appeared in the Guardian.
Steven Connor is a critic and essayist of exceptional tact and daring, a literary scholar – author of books on Dickens, Joyce and Beckett – whose work of the past 10 years or so has turned towards seemingly eccentric, actually essential, themes. Here is a writer who can seemingly conjure the profoundest insights out of the most minute or mundane topics: corridors, twilight, dust, the metaphysics of whispering or the meaning of diagonal lines. Connor’s books have tended to explore vastly metaphorical but material things: The Book of Skin (2004) and The Matter of Air (2010) are bravura studies of what it’s like, literally, to live and breathe. For a time he called himself a “cultural phenomenologist”; his writings have in common an erudite shuttling between the intimacy of embodied being and the vagrant stories we attach to what he calls, in this latest fascinating volume, “stuff”.
Paraphernalia is Connor’s first avowedly “non-academic” book, though it arrives at a time when “thing studies” are thick on the scholarly ground: from sociologist Sherry Turkle’sEvocative Objects to Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects. For the most part, writers on things have approached them as repositories of meaning or (especially) memory – we might think of Walter Benjamin’s obsession with aged commodities or WG Sebald’s insistence that “things know more about us than we know about them”. But Connor is no lugubrious gawper at souvenirs; he’s interested rather in the things we do to things.
The primal scene of Paraphernalia is Connor’s spotting a baby at Dublin airport, rapt in playing with the strap of its mother’s handbag; she tried to distract the child with a morsel of muffin, but “after a couple of puzzled moments, the muffin was thrown aside and the baby resumed its researches”. “Researches” is the key: objects, according to Connor, provide occasions for various types of knowledge, including self-knowledge. Something of this infantile scene attaches to all the objects Connor considers, in a book organised around 18 discrete types of “fidgetable” thing. “The enormous class of things with which we fidget are ways of playing with ourselves at a distance, putting ourselves into serious play.”
They are consequently all things that can be held in the hand: bags, buttons, combs, glasses, handkerchiefs, pipes, plugs, sweets and so on. Connor himself clearly has a keen attachment to such impedimenta – so much so that one wonders how he gets any work done, though the answer is presumably in the question. Here he is on paper clips: “No object, not even the elastic band, is more allied to active contemplation than the paper clip.” And on the world of possibility opened up by a pristine handkerchief: “The ideal handkerchief would in fact unfold to encompass the whole of a person.” Or the pleasures of spectacle-wearing: “I feel sure that, like an antique aunt in bombazine, I should instinctively know what to do with a lorgnette.” There are odder insights, too, into the authorial attitude to objects, as when Connor reveals that he always combs his hair on getting into bed, and has trouble disposing of dead (are they really dead?) batteries.
All of this is witty and charming, but it’s also part of a profound examination of the praxis we bring to things, the physical habits they encourage and the modes of thought or feeling they make possible. Take those mysterious batteries. Though we know, even if vaguely, how an AA battery works, that it has a functional interior, it nonetheless seems a thing solid and uniform to the core, stonelike in its simplicity and selfsameness. We appear to learn from things not just about the practicalities of our local material world, but about the expanding world of metaphor: “A teacup asks to be picked up by the handle; a brandy glass invites us to cradle it, tender as a dove, from underneath.” Nor are the desires we bring to things entirely devotional or affectionate; in an echo of Baudelaire’s essay on toys – the poet’s immediate desire as a boy was to smash a toy and find its soul – Connor conjectures: “Perhaps all play has at its horizon the death of the plaything.” (In the course of writing this review, I absent-mindedly destroyed the cheap propelling pencil I’d used to take notes on the book – its soul was just a slender spring.)
Paraphernalia is indebted to certain philosophical and critical antecedents, notably to Michel Serres’s reflections on substances and the senses, and to Gaston Bachelard’s more sentimental reveries on domestic space. There are elements of Roland Barthes‘s exquisite attention to the surfaces of things in Connor’s ruminations on stickiness and “pexity” (the nap or roughness of a fabric), and of Georges Perec in his sheer exhaustive miniaturism. At times, Connor’s elaborate descriptions of such operations as taking off and putting back on his glasses (“as though I were donning a balaclava”) sound like some tortuous ritual out of Beckett’s Watt. (Beckett is, according to Connor, “probably the great, hitherto uncelebrated dramatist of bags”.)
There is finally the pleasure of Connor’s own meticulous style, strewn with etymological oddities he invites us to fondle before moving on. In places he is casually aphoristic about matters that more literalist (let us say psychoanalytic) authors might labour at: “But the real secret of the key is the ever-present possibility that it can be lost.” In others, he is knowingly gushing: “I feel suavely, sadistically insouciant,” he says of the act of gesturing with his spectacles. Time and again he stops to point out some verbal curio, as in the case of the word “kit”, which used to mean “bag”, so that a kit-bag is literally a “bag-bag”. At such moments, things open themselves up to their own historical strangeness and seem newly coined like a word heard for the first time.