Melancholy stuff

Two things.

First, the publishing company I work for recently distributed a book – now sold out – called Stuff, a photographic record of some of the objects retrieved from the bed of the river Amstel when it was drained to enable a new subway line to be built. The objects range from medieval daggers to pocket calculators. I briefly considered taking a series of photographs of meaningful or interesting objects to make a Stuff of my own, a sort of personal archaeology in pictures.

Secondly, the notes accompanying an exhibition of work by Oscar Murillo at Kettle’s Yard discuss the Japanese concept of mono no aware. This, we’re told, translates as ‘the pathos – or melancholy – of things’ – a deeply-felt emotion as we realise everything is transient and exists in its own time and space.

Have you ever picked up something belonging to to an elderly relative and been touched by a sudden sadness; or found a child’s toy, long discarded, and remembered how it used to lie on their sunlit bedroom floor; or taken a book from the shelf and discovered a photograph used as a bookmark, and remembered that you once loved that person but now, no longer?

These two photographs have their own melancholy. The shoes belonged to a friend of mine who died last year: I photographed them as she had left them before she went into hospital. The other is of the afternoon sunlight slanting across a stretch of wallpaper and an old-fashioned light switch in my Mother’s house as I packed up her belongings shortly after her death. It was the last time I would visit a place I’d known for forty years.

But what about this? A solitary cloud in a perfect blue sky, like a drawing by Shaun Tan. I saw it as I strolled through a field close to my office during a lunchtime break and had no real feelings about it other than remarking its solitary existence in an otherwise cloudless sky.

But consider clouds for a moment. What comes to mind? Joni Mitchell, perhaps. Summer holidays? Sitting in the sun enjoying the peace to read a book from start to finish without interruptions. Or the last day of the vacation, flying home tomorrow. Something that happened in 1967. The summers of your youth. The soul of someone long departed looking down on you with love. Waiting at the station to be collected, wishing you’d worn lighter clothes for the journey. Nothing is perfect, and the presence of the cloud makes the sky even more beautiful. Italy. California. The rugged coastline of north Wales. Melbourne in 1998. That distant weekend in Seville with —-, drinking cava in the square, looking up and seeing a single cloud.

It’s a beautiful concept, isn’t it, once you start to explore it? Mono no aware. What things induce mono no aware in you, I wonder?

29 thoughts on “Melancholy stuff

  1. What an interesting thinker you are! Thank you for this post. It has changed a moribund, unproductive day into something with a great deal more pith for me.

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  2. Michael, thanks for mono no aware. It’s good for the soul, and mind, to know that people have been thinking this stuff for ever. That my thoughts of impermanence can find others’ thoughts of impermanence and co-respond.

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  3. An interesting post, Michael. Yes, I often pick up things, or use old plates given to me by long-gone family members, and have a feeling of connection to them. My melancholy comes when wondering who I can pass these treasures to as I have no children. I accept they will likely end up in an op-shop, but I hope someone thinks about the previous life of these items when they choose them. I’m encouraged that this happens, as you just have to watch the Antiques Roadshow to hear amazing stories and heartfelt feelings for items people have looked after (or collected) over long periods of time.

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    • Perhaps there are friends to whom you could leave these meaningful objects? On AR you sometimes hear stories of people who were given things which turn out to be worth a tidy sum! But it’s often the simplest things that excite the most intense feelings. That light switch in the shadow of the second photograph says so much to me of my mother’s house.

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  4. I love that cloud!
    Shoes are so evocative. After a close friend died, I drew his boots over and over.
    When I was recently going through books, I found one of my daughter’s middle school report cards between two pages. That made me sit and think for awhile.
    Your words lead many places, as always…(K)

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  5. I’ve been revisiting the past a lot over the last two years- various family happenings have forced me to reopen many doors I had kept closed. A real clean out in the light of day for many things kept hidden and should be gone, that’s part of it. And realizing how interpretations of the past change with more life experience and also, others contributing parts of the story to complete a new whole. But there have also been moments such as you describe. I feel grateful for them. It was not all bad. And as things change so quickly these days I find comfort in these moments. I still have these experiences as part of me no matter what.

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  6. This touches my heart, Michael. I was not familiar with ‘mono no aware’ but I could relate to the feeling. My father used to read the encyclopedia incessantly while he was alive. Well, he read other things as well (and danced and sang!) but we went through two sets of encyclopedias while I lived at home. I took the last set when he died and I discovered all sorts of things he had jotted down on scraps of paper. Nothing spectacular, receipts for business expenses, an address, maybe even the start of a poem… But reading through those ‘scraps’ evoked a ‘mono no aware’ feeling in me for sure, I just did not know a term for it.

    As for clouds, my first thought is of a recent trip to Washington and Oregon where I stayed in a beautiful house on the bank of the Columbia River (on the WA side) that had a perfect view of Mt. Hood (on the OR side). I would do my journaling by the window each morning and watch as the clouds changed and thus changed my view of this majestic mountain. Sometimes the cloud cover even obscured the mountain and my family wondered what had gotten into me when I would burst out singing (from the old Donovan song) “Fist there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.” I don’t think I ever understood those lyrics before.

    Once again your post makes me smile even with a theme this time of ‘mono no aware’ which I have written down where I collect interesting ideas.

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    • I love “There is a Mountain”, LuAnne, and it’s wonderful to have such an evocative new context for it. I’ve been living with your reply for a couple of days – it really is very moving. I think there ought to be a word for things found in old books which produce a wistful feeling in the reader far beyond their intrinsic meaning. It’s sort of applied mono no aware or a subset! Thank you for such a lovely response – I’m enjoying these comments, I must say.

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  7. With your explanation, your photos of the objects are very moving….I’m glad you made those photographs and I’m sure you are too. The cloud in its narrow space doesn’t hit me the same way, but I really appreciate your discussion of the Mono no aware concept – a notion that is so Japanese! Maybe certain objects I have that were my mother’s or grandmother’s move me that way, like a small souvenir my mother brought home from Portugal that was never meant for me but ended up with me after she died, now poignant for her positive feelings for it so long ago. And my own old, worn tile from Leiden that reminds me of how wonderful the day that I saw it was, but at the same time, how far away it all is now. Thank you for this. 🙂

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    • Exactly, that’s the thing I think – without the associations they’re just objects. The Portuguese souvenir is a nice example: something not originally meant for you which now has a charged meaning. It would be interesting to hear from someone who is Japanese to know if I’m interpreting it correctly.

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  8. Wow. Evocative, powerful words & images. Thank you for posting this – I live surrounded by things treasured by my lived ones, now all dead. It’s easy to feel sad about them bec I have no one to give them to, certainly no one who’ll appreciated their special provenance. Had no idea there was a term for that, but it makes sense. The clouds! For me they’ve always been other things (beyond their meteorological significance). The one above looks like a kneeling elephant, trunk held high. But a puff of wind & it could be anything else or nothing at all. Opportunities! Wonderful. Super post!!! ::applause::

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