Friday, April 10, 2015

A Meditation on Snow-Globes

I love snow-globes. Who doesn't love snow-globes? If such a person exists, it's probably not someone you'd like to have with you on a desert island.

I would guess that I'm even fonder of them than most people are, though. I have two snow-globes on my desk in work. One was given to me by a colleague as a Kris Kindle gift (the same colleague just passed and said hello; yes, I'm writing this at work, but I'm manning a service desk so that's OK.)

The other snow globe was given to me as a Christmas present by my wife, and it's my favourite Christmas present ever.

Both of the snow-globes on my desk are Christmas snow-globes. The one my colleague gave me shows Santa's workshop. The one my wife gave me shows a nativity scene. The Santa's workshop one is battery-operated and, when supplied with batteries, will perform a light show and play music. The Nativity scene has no such bells and whistles but is much bigger, more solid, and more handsomely produced.

Snow-globes are a popular motif in cinema and story-telling, though now I come to think of it only one example comes to mind; the most famous example, the snow-globe that Kane drops at the beginning of Citizen Kane, while uttering his dying word: "Rosebud!".

Since I wrote that sentence another example occurs to me; the snow-globe in the final scene of the medical drama St. Elsewhere, a television show I've never seen, but whose final scene I've read about. If you don't want to know what happens in that final scene, skip to the next paragraph. For everyone else, here it is; it is suggested that the entire series was a prolonged daydream in the mind of an autistic boy, based upon a snow-globe containing a model of the hospital at the show's centre.

In both of those examples, the snow globe seems to stand for two things; immense wistfulness, and a kind of ultimacy. 'Rosebud', in Citizen Kane, is assumed by the journalists investigating Kane's life to be the key to his story. And, of course, the entire series of St. Elsewhere, in a sense, happens in the snow globe.

When I think of snow-globes, wistfulness is the dominant atmosphere in my own mind. Perhaps this is because snow-globes are usually connected with childhood. They are toys as much as ornaments, and they often contain scenes appropriate to childhood.

Childhood itself seems to have a certain wistfulness native to it. I don't remember being a child. I have flashes, but they're only flashes; they are like the friezes from Pompeii. I do, however, remember being immensely nostalgic and wistful about childhood even when I was a child. I know I'm not the only person who feels this. The horror writer Clive Barker made much the same claim.

Perhaps this is because the idealized childhood that we all would have liked-- and I'm not criticizing that ideal, because ideals are important-- is rather rare. Or perhaps childhood, just like a snowglobe, can only be seen from the outside-- and even a child has to step outside his own experience to look at it. Unselfconsciousness is the very essence of childhood-- and when a child becomes self-conscious about his own childhood, he becomes an adult for a moment.

Or perhaps snow-globes make us feel wistful for that very reason-- that we can never get inside them. We can never enter the world of the snow-globe, except imaginatively. We can't touch the figures under the glass, unless we were to smash the glass.

This is also part of the charm. The snow-globe is a little world of its own, out of bounds but also unchanging. It inspires us with the same feelings that Keats expresses in "Ode to a Grecian Urn" (which is, in my view, a candidate for the greatest poem in English language):

Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

(Having quoted this, though, it strikes me that its air of grandeur and loftiness is rather out of keeping with the atmosphere of most snow-globes, which are picturesque rather than grandiose. And there is a big difference between Keats's urn and a snow-globe; a snow-globe is not entirely immobile, but is somewhat kinetic, since you can shake the globe and the snowflakes whirl. That, after all, is its whole appeal.)

To me, snow-globes evoke not only childhood but the past in general. The poignancy of the past is that it is completed. Nineteen-eighty-five is as inaccessible as Ancient Egypt. You can't go there. Everything back then was as solid and real as it is today, but it has now disappeared completely. The Mount Everest and Westminster Bridge and Stonehenge of nineteen-eighty-five no longer exist. All the eggs that were hatched that year have been eaten; all the school timetables are completely irrelevant now; all the business plans drawn up have either failed or succeeded. Despite all the videotapes that were made, all the diaries that were kept, all the sound recordings in archives from that time, the overwhelming majority of moments in that year are irretrievably lost, even to those who experienced them. You can look at a photograph taken in 1985 and know that something real and tangible lay just beyond that corner, just behind that wall, just through that window; but nobody can look now to see what it was. At the time, everything was up in the air; now everything is fixed in place forever.

(And yet, as I said above, a snow-globe isn't entirely immobile-- you can shake the flakes-- and neither is the past. We don't see the past in freeze frames, we see it as a drama in which things happen-- though they can only ever happen one way, the way they actually happened. So a snow-globe's combination of fixity and motion is a perfect metaphor.)

As well as being a symbol of the past, I find snow-globes to be a symbol-- or maybe even an example-- of wholeness. Wholeness is something that we strive towards in life, but we never attain-- though sometimes we attain a kind of working approximation of it. But even this is rare and fragile.

All my life I have been haunted by the questions; What is a moment, and what makes it a whole? What is a story, and what makes it a whole? What is a thought? What is a journey? How can we ever pluck one of these wholes out of the all-encompassing flux?

The easiest answer, and one that leaves me both unsatisfied and rather queasy, is: "There are no wholes. There is only the flux." Not only does this seem to be refuted by how we talk and act, every day, but it's a singularly horrible idea. An opposition to this idea has become one of my guiding principles, one of the ways I judge the world and its inhabitants. The more a person or a school of thought is infected with the idea that "there is only the flux", the less I like them (or it). This might seem harsh, since it seems like a purely philosophical idea. But I think it's more than philosophical. I think it reflects a desire, and an ignoble desire. We know the rhetoric loved by these kind of people: "Childhood is a modern idea...gender is a social construct....Irishness is a cultural fiction...Catholic doctrine has changed over the centuries...X is fluid, Y is indeterminate, Z is imaginary..."

Against all this gooeyness, and this all this decadent love of gooeyness, I prize that which is distinct and whole and separate; even if it is not perfectly distinct or whole or separate. I don't see why we can't cheer for one side, instead of the other. Nor do I see that nominalism-- the doctrine that there is nothing but the flux-- is any more obviously true than essentialism-- the belief that things are real and have an essential nature. I am in favour of man and woman, and childhood, and the nation, and stories, and moments, and journeys, and the integrity of each thing being what it is and not something else.

And this is part of what a snow-globe symbolizes for me; something that is itself, rather than a mere episode in the flux; whether it is the elves in Santa's grotto, or the Holy Family caught in a fleeting and eternal moment on the first Christmas.

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