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Meditatio 2: History Refracted Through a Glass Paperweight

Published on 28/04/2020
28/04/2020

A World in Free Fall

I released a first, self-published essay in late January 2020, a few weeks before the world fell apart. I had grand plans for the book and looked forward to starting a conversation around its main themes, Japanese anime and literature. A few weeks ago was a time that played out before the coronavirus migrated from China, before the stock market went into freefall, before we were sent home to work from our living rooms and kitchens. Yesterday, as I sat mulling over the grim news out of Europe and the U.S., two fire trucks appeared in the street below. At first I thought nothing of it. Then one of the trucks began to deploy an enormous ramp that slowly crept up the side of the building until it reached a floor somewhere above our own. 

I stared at the ramp, then at the police cars blocking off the street, and wondered whether a fire had somehow broken out without setting off the alarms. Frantically, I wondered whether they might be rescuing someone with a declared case of coronavirus; my mind was racing and I phoned a friend in the building to ask if she had information. She didn’t.  What she knew, however, was that there had been a suicide in our high-rise a few days ago. Someone had jumped from a window: a friend of hers had heard the scream. Now I understood what the firemen were doing: they were responding to another suicide call. I turned away from the scene, chilled to the bone.

A Bloody Song

All sense of normalcy, these days, has gone out the same window. When I started writing my book and even following its release, I felt shy about promoting it, being rather introverted by nature. But I now feel the book might hold a kind of additional value it didn’t have even a few weeks ago. In a recent blog post, I talk about a “crisis of aesthetics”, the same one that the late American psychologist James Hillman equated with our planet’s ecological crisis: both, he felt, were essentially one and the same. I keep this quote taped to my computer screen. His words, along with those of many other influential minds, informed the writing of my first book. Indeed, a key narrative thread of my essay, A Bloody Song: How Anime and Literature Collide, is the divorce of modern and contemporary art from all traditional ideas of beauty and, at bottom, from a certain “feminine ideal.” It is not only the art scene that is rooted in a refutation of history, however, but all of contemporary society.

The academic Francis Fukuyama once famously predicted that civilization has reached a stage defined by “the end of history.” And this brand of thinking remains on full, disturbing display in the desperate efforts of so many - scientists among them - who now seek to distance our current predicament from any reference to past crises or pandemics, emphasizing how advanced we are as a society, how much technological progress we’ve made in recent times, how far we’ve come since the Dark Ages… As Alain de Botton recently reminded us in The New York Times, Camus described this same attitude in those suffering through a plague in his famous 1947 novel. Thankfully, discerning writers at the Times and throughout the world have shown more insight than the citizens of Camus’ fictional town of Oran. They know our fears and suffering are the same as those who lived through past pandemics, be it the Black Death or the Spanish flu.  

Before this global crisis broke, I intended to publish a blog post titled “The Last of the Old Curiosity Shops?”. I never did, and yet I believe that this text is particularly relevant to our situation, even oddly prescient. It went as follows: 

The Last of the Old Curiosity Shops 

It is strange what memory retains of a certain place, a certain person, a certain period of time. Or of a certain book. What I recall most from my reading of George Orwell’s 1984 is the symbol of the glass paperweight with a small piece of pink coral embedded within. That image resurfaced over the past few months as I observed a disheartening trend: the gradual disappearance of antiques shops. I assumed this was specific to Montreal, but eventually came to see it reflected a larger and more significant reality. 

I first noticed the phenomenon last summer while hunting for antiques along rue Notre-Dame here in Montreal, a street famously lined with antiques shops. I turned up the street and began my search in the hope of finding some remarkable yet affordable item I didn’t yet know I wanted. But as I continued along Notre-Dame, something seemed off: the antiques shops had vanished. I finally found a small one and entered with a sense of relief, only to be met by a sign above the counter reading: “Vente de fermeture – Closing Sale.” “Everything’s discounted,” said the clerk, “we’re closing in two weeks.” 

Shuttered Windows

I looked over the displays of antique jewellery and china and left, as nothing struck my fancy. The incident was forgotten until a few months later when I chanced upon two more testaments to the past while walking along Sherbrooke Street, one of Montreal’s oldest avenues. The first was a large, boarded-up Anglican church with a “FOR SALE” sign in front. A bit farther up the road was the second, a neighborhood antiques shop with shuttered windows and a “SOLD” sign planted on its weed-infested lawn. Reality sank in, and I snapped several photos of the church and that abandoned temple to the past, the antiques shop… 

I find the closing of these places - antiques shops in particular - especially upsetting. Here in Québec, the situation is easily explained by the province’s recent and ruthless Catholic history, one that most Quebeckers rightfully wish to forget despite their collective motto of “Je me souviens” (I remember). Unfortunately, however, the intentional forgetting of the past is a pronounced and steadily growing trend in Western societies as a whole. And it is one that leaves us stranded in an eternal present, without past or future, as George Orwell was well aware. His novel makes it clear that a society like this is condemned. 

Eternity at the Heart of the Crystal

So it’s perhaps telling that for me, the detail from “1984” I remember most is the glass paperweight which the protagonist, Winston, purchases in an old antiques shop. A quick online search turns up a beautiful and deeply meaningful passage: “(Winston) turned over towards the light and lay gazing into the glass paperweight. The inexhaustibly interesting thing was not the fragment of coral but the interior of the glass itself. There was such a depth of it, and yet it was almost as transparent as air. (…) He had the feeling that he could get inside it, and that in fact he was inside it (…). The paperweight was the room he was in, and the coral was Julia's life and his own, fixed in a sort of eternity at the heart of the crystal.”[1]

For many critics, Orwell’s paperweight symbolizes the hero’s impossible connection to a past he longs to learn and understand from within an authoritarian political context. But perhaps the delicate, oceanic coral it contains symbolizes our difficult connection not merely to the past, but also to the shifting waters of memory and to Nature itself. For what can it mean to see new generations throw away any reference to history, to all those who lived and loved and suffered before us? What can it mean for a society to cherish nothing but what is new and bright and shiny, to forget the true nature of beauty? Orwell’s novel clearly has important lessons to teach us. 

 A Barrenness of Society and of Soul

These are the words I wrote a few weeks ago. I meant to launch a book. I meant to start a new blog. I meant to finally become the artist I have always been. Now I think back on Orwell’s glass paperweight, on its fragile beauty, which is eventually broken and destroyed by the Thought Police. I think back on the little antiques store with its shuttered windows and the ‘SOLD’ sign standing in its front yard. I think about the legions of elderly people who have become the frightening symbol of the ravages of this global pandemic. And I wonder: what have we done? 

What we’ve done is rid ourselves of the ‘weight’ of the past, of the experience of our elders and of our ancestors, denying its vital importance, its lessons, its beauty. What we have done is seek to divest ourselves, as a fiercely materialistic society, of any genuine connection with our fellow humans and with the natural world. We have sought to suppress the intrinsic truth of the natural processes of birth and decay, and the spiritual value of those processes. What we are left with is a barrenness of society, of soul. 

How to think ourselves out of this existential predicament, one which is now aiding and abetting a global pandemic? What might history, what might art and beauty teach us at this time? What might that little shuttered antiques shop still have to say? What, crucially, might our elders, now feeling daily more vulnerable and embattled and abandoned by society, have to confide in us in our darkest hour? These are among the few questions I sought to reflect upon, perhaps without quite knowing it, when I set out to write A Bloody Song. Once upon a time.

 

You may find more information about the author here: www.carolinekerjean.com

 

[1] Orwell, George, 1984. http://www.george-orwell.org/1984/11.html. Accessed April 4, 2020.