The title of my talk, “Man and Things,” may, perhaps, confuse you. It may seem to you, for example, that, paying homage to the devil of generalization, I intend the word “man” to mean some kind of composite, extraordinarily convenient Homo sapiens, a representative of humanity. You might think that for me a “thing” has some kind of definite meaning, which I intend to juggle with philosophical ease. Moreover, the very word “thing” may call up in your imagination something domestic, not very valuable, a thing of comfort or decoration. Incidentally, we might recall that Chekhovian doctor from, I think, “Three Sisters,” who, not knowing how to characterize a gift that was being proudly shown to him, twists it about in his hands and mumbles, “Hmm, yes . . . a thing.”1 In fact, he then, out of clumsiness, drops this thing, a mantel clock, I think, causing resounding repercussions. And still another intonation can be heard in the word “thing.” I once had an acquaintance, a jeweller, in whose mouth the highest praise for a bracelet or a rivière2 was precisely this word, “thing,” pronounced weightily, with a loud voice, over and over, in time with the weighing movement of the palm on which the precious object lay. Finally, the heading of my talk might produce yet another quid pro quo. For the words “man and things” perhaps suggest to another mind the image of a man in an alehouse, a lackey, a waiter,3 as a result of which, the word “things,” too, will hatch out of its fog and take on the image of things for which the management bears no responsibility.
By listing these possible misinterpretations, I hope to eliminate them. Of course, when I say “man,” I mean only myself. Just as the things I am going to talk about won’t pass without nametags into the fog of the commonplace. For by the word “thing” I mean not only a toothpick but also a steam engine. Everything made by human hands is a thing. That is the only general definition I will allow myself.
A thing, a thing made by someone, does not exist in itself. A seagull flying over a cigarette case forgotten on a beach cannot distinguish it from a stone, from sand, from a scrap of seaweed, since in the absence of man a thing immediately returns to nature’s bosom. A rifle lying in the depths of a tropical jungle is no longer a thing but a lawful part of the forest; today already a red stream of ants pours over it; tomorrow it will grow moldy, perhaps even flower. A house is only a stone block when man leaves it. Should he leave it for five hundred years, the house, like a silent, cunning animal running for freedom, will return to nature imperceptibly, and indeed, look, it’s just a pile of stones. And note, by the way, how eagerly and how adroitly the very slightest thing strives to slip away from man, and how inclined it is to suicide. A dropped coin, with the haste of a desperate fugitive, traces a wide arc on the floor and disappears into the farthest corner under the farthest sofa. And not only is there no object without man, but there is no object without a definite relationship to it from the human side. This relationship is slippery. Take, for example, a framed painting, the portrait of a woman. One person looks at it and, with the cold admiration of a connoisseur, analyzes the colors, the chiaroscuro, the background. Another, a craftsman, filled with a certain complex sensation, in which images of his craft mix—the glue, the yardstick, the decorative molding, the firmness of the wood, the gilding—looks at the frame with a professional eye. A third, a friend of the woman depicted, discusses the likeness or, pierced for a moment by one of those faint recollections that are like the street urchins of memory, sees and hears with great clarity (albeit for a moment) that very woman put down her handbag and gloves on the table and say, “Tomorrow is the last sitting, thank God. The eyes have come out well.” And, finally, a fourth looks at the painting with the thought that today the dentist will cause him a great deal of pain, so that each time he sees this painting, he will recall the buzzing of the drill and how the dentist’s breath smelled.
What does all this come to, then? There is not one thing, albeit mathematically there is only one thing, but four, five, six, a million things, depending on how many people look at it. What do I care about a pair of boots left by my neighbor outside his door? But, were my neighbor to die tonight, what human warmth, what pity, what live and tender beauty would these two old, shabby boots, with their eyelet flaps sticking out like little ears, left standing at the door, radiate over me. In my desk, in a crumpled envelope, I found five matches, their heads blackened. Why I had put them there to keep, what memory is linked to them, I have forgotten, forgotten entirely. I’ll still keep them for a time, for the sake of that memory, which I know is connected to them, loving them with some kind of secondary love, but then I’ll throw them out. Thus do we betray things. At a fair, in a remote little town, I won a cheap porcelain pig at target shooting. I abandoned it on the shelf at the hotel when I left town. And in doing so I condemned myself to remember it. I am hopelessly in love with this porcelain pig. I am overcome by an unbearable, slightly silly tenderness when I think of it, won, and unappreciated, and abandoned. With much the same feeling, I sometimes look at some trifling, inconspicuous ornamentation, at the flowers on the wallpaper in a dark corner of a corridor, which, perhaps, no one but me will notice. In someone else’s house, on the writing desk, I saw the exact same ashtray I have on my desk, and yet this one is mine, the other someone else’s. I remember, when I was about ten years old, my uncle died from diphtheria. His rooms were being disinfected. Perhaps they didn’t quite explain disinfection well enough to me: I understood that this man had died and now what they were doing was making it so that his things weren’t his anymore, removing from them the dust, the smell, all that which made these things precisely his.
I don’t like hearing when people talk of machines: oh, our mechanical age; oh, robots; oh, this and that. Machines, instruments, have served us all. In this sense a penknife is no different from some very complicated factory machine. The point is, there’s no complexity here. We take the number of parts as complexity, but the parts themselves are simple, and in the end they connect together simply. When a man looks at a steam engine, its mechanism seems to him unbelievably intricate, because in his notion of it he has disconnected the object from the mind that conceived it. The mind is intricate and complex, human ingenuity is astonishing, but the creation itself is of course simple. The charm of machines is precisely the fact that every intelligent, dextrous man can create a machine. No, we have not moved much further on than our ancestors. In the fifth century, a clever Chinese man invented the submarine. The Mongols in days of yore stunned their Western foes with poisonous gases. I read an advertisement, for instance, for some firm producing all kinds of automated devices for the vending of goods, the latest word in technology, so to speak. Yet automated devices were already being used in gray-haired antiquity. Egyptian priests used them to play on the superstitions of their people. Magical urns stood outside the Temples of Isis. They supplied the faithful with the goddess’s blessing in the form of a few drops of holy water. All that was needed to make this happen was to drop a five-drachma coin into a slot in the urn, just as a young lady would do at an underground station to get a box of almonds. It turns out that this is a sacred and immortal gesture. Those auto-functioning Egyptian urns brought the priests a good profit for several centuries in a row, and of course the secret behind their mechanism was guarded by strict laws, even by the threat of capital punishment. This is how it must have worked: a dropped coin fell along a wired tube onto the well-balanced shoulder of a lever; this would cause a valve in the bottom of the vessel filled with water to open up for a moment, and a little water would pour out through a discharge pipe, into a cup placed there by a gullible Egyptian, sweating with stupefaction. And several centuries later, on the streets and even on the main roads of ancient Rome, there were automats for vending wine, just like the gadgets we have. Thus, a Roman, leaving home, would always take a drinking goblet. If I were a good artist, I would paint the following picture: Horace, thrusting a coin into a slot machine.
Man is God’s likeness; a thing is man’s likeness. A man who makes a thing his God comes to resemble the thing. Thus, one comes full circle: thing, God, man, thing—and a full circle is pleasing to the mind. An automat is in many ways most similar to man. You push it, it responds. You grease its palm, and it brings you pleasure. You give it money, it gives you goods. But in all other kinds of things I feel a certain resemblance to man. Underpants drying in a brisk wind launch into an idiotic, but quite human, dance. An inkwell stares at me with one black eye, with a glint in its pupil. A clock whose hands are at ten to two brings to mind a face with Wilhelm’s whiskers.4 Between the rounded bell-glass of a lamp and the bald head of a philosopher filled with luminous thought, there is a soothing resemblance. We have christened the parts of things, weapons, machines, with words we use for different parts of our bodies, making these diminutives as if we were talking of our children. “Toothlet, eyelet, earlet, hairlet, noselet, footlet, back, handle, head.”5 It is as though I am surrounded by little monsters, and it seems to me that the little teeth of the clock are gnawing away at time, that the “ear” of the needle stuck into the curtain is eavesdropping on me, that the teapot spout,6 with a little droplet poised on its tip, is about to sneeze like a man with a cold. But with larger objects, in houses, trains, automobiles, factories, the human element sometimes becomes startlingly unpleasant. In villages in the Schwarzwald, there are sneering houses: the little window in the roof is elongated like a sly eye. Automobiles, too, can be extremely eyelike, the more so because we give them not three, not one, but two headlights. Little wonder that in our fairy tales and in our spiritualist séances things literally come to life.
I think that, by deepening these analogies, and by going into what I admit is a certain anthropomorphic ardor, we can lend things our feelings. In the lazy positioning of a woolen shawl draped over the back of a chair, there’s something moping: oh, how the shawl longs for someone’s shoulders! In an open but still perfectly blank notebook, there’s something cheerful, joyous, and sincere. A pencil is, by its nature, softer, kinder than a pen. The pen speaks, the pencil whispers.
Finally, there are children among things. These are, of course, toys. They imitate grown-up things, and the more accurate the imitation, the dearer they are to a human child. In childhood, I was troubled by the question: Where will my toys go when I grow up? I imagined a huge museum, where they gradually gathered the toys of children who were growing up. And often now, when I go into a museum of antiquities where there are Roman coins, weapons, clothes, chain mail, it seems to me that I have entered that very museum of my dreams.
We fear letting—not for anything do we want to let—our things return to the nature they came from. It is almost physically painful for me to part with old trousers. I keep letters I will never reread. A thing is a human likeness, and sensing this likeness, its death, its destruction, is unbearable for us. Ancient kings were laid in their coffins with their armor, their implements; they would have taken their palaces with them if they could. Flaubert wished to be buried with his inkwell. But the inkwell would be bored without a quill, the quill without paper, the paper without a desk, the desk without a room, the room without a house, the house without a town. And, no matter how hard man tries, he, too, decays, and his things decay, too. And better than lying like a mummy in a painted sarcophagus in a museum draft, it is far more pleasant, and somehow more honest, to decay in the ground to which, in their turn, toys, and linotypes, and toothpicks, and automobiles will return.
- V.N. misremembers who says this: not the doctor, Chebutykin, who will drop the gift, but Vershinin.
- A “river of diamonds,” a diamond necklace.
- In pre-revolutionary Russia, “Chelovek!” (“Man!”) was a way of summoning a waiter, like the French “Garçon!,” whose literal meaning (“Boy!”) has similarly made the expression now offensive and obsolete in restaurants and bars.
- Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941), German emperor.
- All are natural diminutives in Russian.
- In Russian, “nosik” (“little nose”).
This piece is drawn from “Think, Write, Speak,” which was edited by Brian Boyd and Anastasia Tolstoy. The book is out, in November, from Knopf.
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