Blog Archive

Search This Blog

Thursday, June 4, 2015

"The Position of Things"

the position of things


After several days, perhaps weeks, of living in her new mansion of Hitchcock’s version of Daphne Du Maurier’s tale, the Max De Winter’s new wife determines to take a sneak peek into a room in another wing of the vast home, from whence she has seen the intimidating head servant, Mrs. Danvers, coming and going. The room she enters, the bedroom of Rebecca, is a glorious shrine to the woman Mrs. Danvers adored. Fascinated and appalled by what she discovers, the second Mrs. De Winter, briefly touches some of the combs and brushes which are laid out on Rebecca’s dressing table as if they were museum pieces.
      When Mrs. Danvers discovers the “intruder” in the room, one of the first things she does is to chastise the second wife for having rearranged, ever so slightly, the tables’ objects, immediately returning them to their exact placement. It is at that very moment, we recognize that this servant is utterly mad, that she has not only enshrined the brushes, perfumes, clothes and bedding of the dead woman, but has frozen them, like Dickens’ Mrs. Havisham, in time and place. The placement of the objects, the position of things has become completely associated with the person herself, we suddenly comprehend, and, in the crazed mind of Mrs. Danvers, by keeping them in their place she keeps the dead woman alive.

     That scene recently set me to thinking about what I had long realized, but had not deeply reflected upon before: the fact that almost all of us position the objects of our world in different ways that somehow defines our relationship with them. Indeed entire cultures reiterate sometimes contrary ways to place their objects, from furniture to things of storage, from the foodstuffs in our kitchen cabinets to, as in Rebecca’s case, our bedroom and bathroom necessities.      For example, we recognize that in many Middle East cultures, nearly all the furniture is placed around the room against the walls, creating a vast emptiness within the center—perhaps repeating the patterns of the ancient tribal tents, wherein the center served as a place for gathering and eating. And this manner of placement, apparently, does not change with wealth; observe, for example, the rooms of the fabulously wealthy Iranian villain, Shaheen Parvici (Irene Papas) in John Landis’ film Into the Night (see My Year 2001) and the image of a Middle East furniture catalogue at right.
      In Japan, objects, particularly those in storage, are stacked, rigged, and bound together. Chairs, such as those at left, have been made to functionally fit into smaller spaces. The Shakers often hung their unused chairs from the ceiling, presumably to make it easier to clean the floors when no one was seated upon them.
     Similarly accessory objects, as Howard noticed in his day trip to Northern Mexico, were neatly gathered and stacked against the sides of the homes in vertical rows.

     In Korea, as I’ve mentioned in My Year 2011: No One’s Home, after my Polish friend, Jerzy Illg kept moving the small plates that were being spread out upon our dining table, the waitress softly slapped his hand, explaining to him through a translator, that it was only by the placement of the numerous small platters that she knew that she had served all of her patrons, who shared the different dishes in groups of 2 or 3 individuals. Illg was simply responding to the platters of food as any Westerner normally might, bringing the various dishes he was being served closer to him in a proprietary way that was inappropriate to the Korean manner of group dining.

         Over the years, we have become close friends with our cleaning woman, Ana-María Abraham, who visits our home once a week. I realized, like Rebecca, that I too had a way of placing my few personal objects—my hairbrush, comb, soap dish, toothpaste cup, etc.—mostly by slanting them in parallel patterns. It is as if I had been aesthetically trained in diagonals. Although our living room couch is lined up against the wall, our guest chairs are pulled into the slant against the centering of a small cube, presumably to help pull those who sit there into the conversation of the others in the room.

     After more than 20 years of weekly visits, Ana-María dutifully moves my bathroom objects, after cleaning the countertop, into parallel patterns against the back and sides of the counter aligned with the mirrors.

     Howard, on the other hand, makes no particular order of the numerous cans of beans, tomato sauce, capers, hearts of palm, and peanuts he stores in our cupboard, but is insistent that each of the labels be carefully arranged to face out, and is highly disturbed if I insert anything in a different direction.

     In short, it is the position of these things that somehow defines our relationship to them, and this positioning of things, although sometimes culturally learned, can just as often be something defined by our personal aesthetics, which, of course, we also may have taught by our families and the communities in which they lived. No matter how many times Ana-María feels compelled to change the position of my brushes, I probably will feel just as compelled to put them back in their “proper” position. And just maybe, if I were die before Howard, he, like Mrs. Danvers, might be tempted to keep them (we have separate bathrooms) in their same places for the rest of his life.  

Los Angeles, June 4, 2015


Joyce Kornblatt said...

what a lovely essay, douglas.

Cindy Dy said...

Hey there! Someone in my Myspace group shared this website with us so I came to check it out.I’m definitely loving the information. I’m book-marking and will be tweeting this to my followers!Terrific blog and fantastic design and style.