The Tears of Things: Melancholy and Physical Objects

Overview

We surround ourselves with material things that are invested with memories but can only stand for what we have lost. Physical objects—such as one’s own body—situate and define us; yet at the same time they are fundamentally indifferent to us. The melancholy of this rift is a rich source of inspiration for artists. 

Peter Schwenger deftly weaves together philosophical and psychoanalytical theory with artistic practice. Concerned in part with the act of collecting, The Tears ...

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Overview

We surround ourselves with material things that are invested with memories but can only stand for what we have lost. Physical objects—such as one’s own body—situate and define us; yet at the same time they are fundamentally indifferent to us. The melancholy of this rift is a rich source of inspiration for artists. 

Peter Schwenger deftly weaves together philosophical and psychoanalytical theory with artistic practice. Concerned in part with the act of collecting, The Tears of Things is itself a collection of exemplary art objects—literary and cultural attempts to control and possess things—including paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe and René Magritte; sculpture by Louise Bourgeois and Marcel Duchamp; Joseph Cornell’s boxes; Edward Gorey’s graphic art; fiction by Virginia Woolf, Georges Perec, and Louise Erdrich; the hallucinatory encyclopedias of Jorge Luis Borges and Luigi Serafini; and the corpse photographs of Joel Peter Witkin. 

However, these representations of objects perpetually fall short of our aspirations. Schwenger examines what is left over—debris and waste—and asks what art can make of these. What emerges is not an art that reassembles but one that questions what it means to assemble in the first place. Contained in this catalog of waste is that ultimate still life, the cadaver, where the subject-object dichotomy receives its final ironic reconciliation. 

Peter Schwenger is professor of English at Mount St. Vincent University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He is the author of Fantasm and Fiction: On Textual Envisioning, Letter Bomb: Nuclear Holocaust and the Exploding Word, and Phallic Critiques: Masculinity and Twentieth-Century Literature.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780816646319
  • Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
  • Publication date: 3/13/2006
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.88 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Table of Contents

Contents

Acknowledgments

Introduction: The Melancholy Object of Art

Part I: Representation

1. Words and the Murder of the Thing

2. Painting and the Gaze of the Object

3. Sculpture and the Broken Tool

Part II: Possession

4. Possessed Objects

5. Still Life: A User’s Manual

6. Museal

Part III: Dispossession

7. The Dream Narratives of Debris

8. Last Things

Notes

Works Cited

Index

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  • Posted January 22, 2009

    essay on the inevitable distance between individuals and the objects of their surroundings

    In his book-length essay with elements of philosophy, art criticism, and literary critique, Schwenger ruminates on the incompleteness of perception, 'always falling short of full possession [as comprehension or understanding], giving rise to a melancholy that is felt by the subject and is ultimately for [italics in original] the subject.' The author--a professor of English at Mount St. Vincent U. in Canada--detects the limits of the connection with things in a world of physical objects, including an individual's own body which limits inevitably give rise to feeling of melancholy and loneliness. Art works of Georgia O'Keeffe and Rene Magritte, writings of Borges and Virginia Woolf, and sculpture by Duchamp and Louise Bourgeois are among the many and varied art by recognized modern artists the author brings in for his illumination of this mood of melancholy which is ordinarily faint in the hustle and bustle of daily life and its simple, practical relationship with things. One appreciates the author's unapologetic use of psychology in this sensitive movement in this central, yet for the most part unrealized feature of human existence. The psychology brings an illumination and reach to the subject which semantics, semiology, aesthetics, and the study of 'material culture' cannot with their formalistic, postmodernist methods and styles. Schwenger finds in the end that although it is bound in with anxieties over 'real and metaphysical death,' since it is essentially a desire refusing 'to conclude...always impelled past conclusion,' melancholy is a part of the life force.

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