Tuesday, 15 December 2009

The Transparent Pencil

Hugh Person, a tidy man, considered the pencil. It had shot out of the crooked middle drawer of an old desk which (drawer) Hugh had tried to woggle in. The pencil "was not a hexagonal beauty of Virginia juniper or African cedar, with the maker's name imprinted in silver foil". It was "a very plain, round, technically faceless old pencil of cheap pine, dyed a dingy lilac".

The thingness of things. Nabokov considers the materiality of objects: grasping it, we grasp reality. That thin veneer of immediate reality spread over matter, that tension film that should not be broken if "one wishes to remain in the now with the now". If we concentrate too much on a material object, "the very action of attention may lead to our involuntarily sinking into the history of the object. Objects become transparent. Through them we can see the past.

Consider the pencil.

Go back to 16th-century Borrowdale, a valley in English Cumbria, when according to legend under the trees uprooted by a violent storm a strange black material was revealed to amazed shepherds: graphite. Take young girls and old men and put them to work. Make them finely ground the graphite, make them mix it with moist clay: caviar!

Place "this mass, this pressed caviar in a metal cylinder" - a cylinder with a blue eye,a sapphire with a hole drilled in it" - and force it through; watch it issue "in one continuous appetizing rodlet"; watch it cut into lengths by "old Elias Borrowdale". See it baked, see it boiled in fat. See the pine tree cut, the trunk stripped of its bark. See the board that will yield the integument of the pencil.

Vladimir Nabokov, Transparent Things, (Weidenfield & Nicholson, 1972).  

And Nabokov concludes:

We recognize [the pencil's] presence in the log as we recognized the log in the tree and the tree in the forest and the forest in the world that Jack built. We recognize that presence by something that is perfectly clear to us but nameless, and as impossible to describe as a smile to somebody who has never seen smiling eyes.
Thus the entire little drama, from crystallized carbon and felled pine to this humble implement, to this transparent thing, unfolds in a twinkle. Alas, the solid pencil itself as fingered briefly by Hugh Person still somehow eludes us!

Borrowdale at dusk. Photo by Skier Dude

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