I was thinking about the disdain we sometimes express toward objects. “Those are just things,” people might say about their belongings. “I care more about people.” Christianity promulgates this attitude, unless it’s pushing affluence and abundance, a la certain TV evangelists. “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” Jesus told us in last week’s reading. Who cares about those coins containing Caesar’s face (crafted and beautiful though they may be)? We should invest instead in the eternal Platonic ideals, things that last.
What about the people whose very vocation is making things? What about sculptors and painters? They craft physical objects, intended to appeal to our physical senses. Do we dismiss these creations as mere things?
Edmund De Waal makes pots. He’s concerned not only with how they look, but how they feel. In The Hare with Amber Eyes, he writes, “How objects get handled, used and handed on is not just a mildly interesting question for me. It is my question. . . . I can remember the weight and the balance of a pot, and how its surface works with its volume, I can read how an edge creates tension or loses it. I can feel if it has been made at speed or with diligence. If it has warmth.”
De Waal’s book concerns 264 things, a collection of netsuke passed on to him by his famous family, the Ephrussis, comparable to the Rothschilds in their influence and wealth. These beautiful, whimsical little Japanese sculptures have traveled an astonishing odyssey throughout Europe, back to Japan, and, for now, to an old home in London.
How often are you changed by a book? I’m not talking about learning something new or having your mind changed by an effective argument. I’m talking about how you perceive the world when you finish the last page. De Waal’s story is elegantly told, tragic and enlightening. The single aspect of his book I’m concentrating on right now is that sensitivity to objects. I am able write about my mother and borderline personality, about sentences and paragraphs, imagery, word history, and Latin versification, but I could never write that paragraph about pots and tension and edges. I don’t think that way. I’m more open now, though, to the texture of the things around me.
After reading Edmund De Waal’s lovely and harrowing book, I feel differently about objects.