Here is, ostensibly, a very short story. My wife knitted me a scarf for Christmas last year. Three months ago I lost it in London. I still feel terrible about it. The end.
But I’m not going to let you go just yet. Let’s start with a cliché. You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. Winsome in their familiarity, these words contain something that is still worth examining. Was it only in losing the scarf did its preciousness, what it signified – the gesture of love, the hours spent making it – become apparent? That which is omnipresent is overlooked, discarded by the beholder.
The lost scarf leads to ontological considerations, too. The scarf exists in time and is made up of time – her time. Like Fates’ braids, the maker’s time was woven into the scarf’s physical existence. Now the scarf is lost, did she lose her time making it? But then the lost scarf still exists. In the above photo. In my mind. In my wife’s mind. And, perhaps, also in the material world itself. Around someone else’s neck. Or draped on a railing, bedraggled by the rain, awaiting ownership old or new.
Or should I be asking: when did this scarf actually come into being? With the wool? With the fleece of the sheep? Or with that sheep’s parents, whose genetic history predetermined the quality of the wool? Or the meteorological incidents and environment which shaped these sheep lives and, thus, their fleeces? Or with the farmer who owned and bred them? Or the diet they subsisted on? Or when these strands of black angora wool were finally enmeshed into the finished length? Or with the Platonic Ideal Form of ‘scarf’? When does any narrative start? At what point on the cosmological timeline do we say – here! here it began?
All of a sudden I am faced with the artist’s dilemma and a variation of Kant’s mathematical sublime: the story stretches back forever into the overwhelming past. Infinity is something that cannot be accommodated by human imagination; it literally cannot be imagined and requires Reason to provide the notion as a concept. So it is with narrative. It is the arbitrariness of all narrative which now strikes you, and which instils in the writer an anxiety which can forestall narrative invention: when to begin our tale if every beginning is a lie? And this anxiety creeps out of fictive realm into fact. When do we begin our histories: with first causes? The Big Bang?
The reason for this essay was an afternoon spent drifting through Routledge’s The Object Reader. The final section of the book is entitled ‘Object Lessons’ and comprises essays by contemporary theorists on an object. It led me to consider what I would write about for such an ‘object study’, and the contrarian in me chose an object that had been lost. An apologia. A writing-back-into-existence that which is absent, which is, essentially, what all writing is: a re-affirmation of what really was.