A Japanese Temple Bell in Ireland

By Arthur, Chris | Contemporary Review, September 1994 | Go to article overview

A Japanese Temple Bell in Ireland


Arthur, Chris, Contemporary Review


IT is comparatively rare to be given any depth of insight into the provenance and history of the things around us. For the most part, the objects we encounter bear with them only the most minimal of clues about their origin. Of the often long and meandering paths which led them to us, only a couple of steps are known or can be guessed at with any likelihood of accuracy. Sensitive and dexterous though our fingers may be, they are blind to all but the most obvious aspects of the things they grasp. Touch can read shape, weight, size, texture, temperature; but beyond such crude measures of materiality the history of a thing is hidden. We do not know who made it, used it, owned it; we are ignorant of the emotions it may have aroused, the events it may have facilitated.

Perhaps that is why we get so attached to possessions (whether they are valuable or not). Alone among the opaque inscrutability of the things that surround us, our own known objects set a bulwark of familiarity between us and the disturbing anonymity of existence. Things handed down from generation to generation acquire a special importance, 'sentimental value' adheres to them. We cash that value in each time we use them to see a little way into the past. They are heavy with the possibility of remembrance. Mostly, though, this lack of direct tactile access to inanimate genealogies, the invisibility of objects' journeys through time and space, is not felt as any loss. Indeed it would be a positive disadvantage if each piece of furniture, every garment, ornament, kitchen utensil, our keyboards, pens, keys and such like suddenly acquired autobiographical voices which were audible to touch. Were the story of each object announced as tangibly as its weight and shape, the babble of information confronting us would be similar in scale and chaos to what might result were we suddenly to be cursed with telepathic powers. The blindness of touch which shields us from such cacophany and allows a decent gagging anonymity to enshroud most objects, is surely a saving grace. It is something to be thankful for, rather than a sensory deficiency to be bemoaned, our delight in the familiar notwithstanding.

Sometimes, though, particular objects seem so laden with meaning, so pregnant with the past, that it is hard not to wish for psychometry -- that is, the (alleged) ability, claimed by some mediums, to divine directly by touch the qualities, properties, history of a thing. What beachcomber has not picked up some piece of flotsam, a mute remnant of our ever-varied human detritus, a holed and worn shoe, a child's plastic doll, a rust-encrusted key, and wondered what story it might tell us if only touch alone could release its little cargo of history? Living in an old house, occupied for maybe three generations before us, it is sometimes hard not to wish for the ability to read the past, to find out what happened here, just by placing your hand on the walls or by touching the gnarled timbers of the roof beams. Holding something ancient like a fossil, or visiting the site of some great battle, may impart a potent sense of awe at the scale of time and the savagery of fate. But however atmospheric, however emotional it may be, our presence in a place, like the mere handling of objects, yields little information on its own. Even human bones, upon which such a weight of intimacy and contact is impressed over the term of an average life-span, provide no intrinsic purchase for the retrieval of their story. Despite the appeal and comfort which some still find in relics and amulets, the gravity of objects cannot keep in orbit about them anything we can directly detect. The mute inanimacy of things invests them with an anonymity which usage, ownership, feeling can only temporarily obscure with the transience of names.

We cannot tell just by standing there if murder or kindness has happened in a room; a handful of ash may be from a garden bonfire or from some hellish Nazi crematorium; the loveliest country walk may have borne on its grassy lanes before us the steps of those in love, in despair, or in some terrible death-dealing rage. …

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