It is shamelessly self promotional of me, I know, but story-time today is an excerpt from my new book Culture and Consumption II. This little essay was written some years ago while I was still living in Toronto. I like it for a couple of reasons, but especially because it looks at the power of things.
Uncle Meyer died in his sleep on August 4. He was 82 and lived with his wife in a north Toronto high-rise. He worked as a volunteer at an animal shelter. He went for long walks. He was a truly sweet guy, but not a very candid one. He didn’t wear his heart on his sleeve. He didn’t regale you with the “Uncle Meyer” story.
Except once. One night after dinner, Uncle Meyer brought out his photographs. I froze. This is the relative’s great fear: caught without defenses when the photographs come out.
Uncle Meyer did it perfectly. He just materialized at the dinner table, photos in hand. I felt myself struggling for an excuse. Weren’t we double-parked in a fire zone on a traffic island? Didn’t the sitter need a drive home to Rochester? Uncle Meyer had us. We bowed to the hard dictates of good form.
And there is was. Lying under the photographs was a wine-colored canvas wallet, about the size of a paperback. It was stitched together boldly, and in place crudely with thick green thread. “What’s this?” I asked, already in the object’s thrall. Uncle Meyer looked up at me and then back at the wallet. “Oh, that,” he said and stopped.
I picked it up, the anthropologist suddenly on alert. The wallet was what we might call, after Proust, a “Madeleine” object: an object charged with meaning and power.
Madeleine objects have lots of different powers. Sometimes they cut away the present time and place, and transport us – in Proust’s case to the exquisite embrace of a childhood bed and maternal attentions. But sometimes they have a different influence altogether. Sometimes they come at us like something airborne and night-flying.
Uncle Meyer’s wallet was one of these. It reached up and gave me a crack across the snout. The last time I’d seen anything like this, I’d been peering into a museum display case, a Yale University art historian beside me. We have been doing what academics tend to do, parading Ivy League manners, elegant theories, and artful phrases.
We stopped to comment airily on something, and an Inuit mask came hurling up out of the case like a shark out of water. The voracious energy of the thing! It consumed our manners, our theories and our language. Hah! Our pretensions fled in terror, and we were suddenly bewildered little men blinking stupidly. Uncle Meyer’s canvas wallet had something of this power. It grabbed at the senses and made the world drain away.
These Madeleine objects are still not much understood. We have all seen them. But they continue to make a mockery of even our grandest theory. Once I thought this was because they had the power of an irreducible object, a sheer “thingness” before which ideas see empty, mere, abstract. But Uncle Meyer’s wallet made me think again. Madeleine objects overwhelm theories because they are more powerfully abstract than any theory could ever be. Uncle Meyer’s wallet was an open cut on the surface of our reality, a hole through which culture came spilling into life.
But there was a more tactile power to it, too. Somehow it managed to be both personal and completely traditional. Obviously, someone had made it, carefully placing each stitch. But the wallet conformed to a pattern to which generations had contributed. It let you see both the individual and the tradition from which it came.
All this was nothing compared to its intimacy. This little canvas envelope somehow transmitted the emotions that were present at its making. You could sense the care taken to create something beautiful, and the comfort it gave its maker.
And there was anxiety. The wallet had not been easy to make. It told you that the maker was in the clutches of a terrible emotion that drove the stitches in one direction and then another. In short, the wallet howled because it was charged with rich and difficult meanings that it somehow conveyed as a single sensation. To see the object was to be invaded by its meanings.
Uncle Meyer was slow to tell the story, but eventually he did. The wallet was stitched 65 years ago by his mother. She made it to hold his passport and the Canadian visa that would see him safely out of a land of terror, pogroms, state-sanctioned anti-Semitism.
Meyer was then 17. He could leave Russia. His family could not. His father died of natural causes, he told me. “My mother, well, the Nazis…I don’t know what happened.”
He arrived in Canada in 1925, going first to Montreal and then to Edmonton to work for a relative. He spent the early years moving back and forth across the country, a member of a team of Jewish roughnecks who worked on the construction of large buildings from Victoria to Kingston.
There was, after all, nothing dreary or domestic about Uncle Meyer’s photographs. They were taken from the dizzying heights of construction sites: the Banff Springs Hotel, the Vancouver Medical-Dental Building, grain elevators across the prairies. He recalled painting those elevators. He and his pals liked to ride the wooden platforms when they banged around in high winds.
Meyer’s canvas wallet brought him to another country and another life. He lived, despite his roughneck heroics, safe from harm. He escaped the holocaust that claimed his family.
He had come away from his home and his family with a few clothes and not much more. As his mother prepared him for his departure, as she prepared herself for the fact that she would likely never see him again, she took up threat and canvas. She made a wallet for his passport, so that her reckless, bounding son would not lose the paper that would see him into safety. She produced an envelope to see Meyer into the envelope of the new world. Meyer made it. The wallet worked.