Text by Professor Cardinal for Annabel Dover


It is sometimes the case that the object most cherished is the object lost beyond recall. As a boy of about six, I became the proud owner of a small telescope. I cannot recall who gave it to me. I thought it a fascinating treasure, capable of transforming anything at which it was pointed. It offered glimpses of another reality, or rather it put me in touch with an enhanced, more acute, more decisive world. It became a fetish, and its effects of bemusing transfiguration made me proud, as if I had acquired magical powers. One day, in the playground of my primary school in south-east London, I discovered that one of the lenses of my telescope had worked loose and dropped off. I knew at once that I would never find this component and that its absence had stripped the telescope of all its potency. I recall weeping my heart out in the middle of the kids at play, and then of being comforted by two older girls, perhaps in the top class, who had the maturity and kindness to talk to me and reassure me that it was not quite the end of the world. Since then, I have owned and cherished many objects: pens which glided fluently across the page, watches which gave me a glance of complicity when I consulted them, books replete with private associations, little gifts from people I have admired or loved. I am still an unrepentant collector of trivia: bird-feathers, pebbles, matchboxes, train tickets, foreign coins, faded postcards, out-of-date maps. All these are linked to particular places, people, circumstances and emotions, and can be seen as the equivalent of a collection of reminiscences, an inventory of nostalgia. I own many books, and whenever I mislay one, I mope for days over what seems like the loss of a beloved person, and rejoice when the volume turns up, usually having taken teasing refuge under a batch of unsorted papers. I feel stricken with grief whenever I search my pockets and find that my trusty pen has somehow slipped from reach. My telescope was just the first in a lifelong series of objects of desire which I have fondled and which have gone astray. Just now I am grieving for a pair of blue-tinted sunglasses that I bought a decade ago in Vienna, at the Prater funfair. They must have jumped out of my pocket when I came home on the train the other night. They were cheap but rather elegant, and, apart from one of the lenses coming loose, they were otherwise intact and gave reliable service. The fact that the small defect did not get worse endeared them to me. Indeed the very vulnerability of the object its constant closeness to collapsing altogether made it all the more precious, as though I were more poignantly attached to what was only just functional. More mature by now, I view this latest loss as painful but inevitable, and perhaps even a relief, for one can get irritated by one's own clutter. There seem to be some interesting resonances here. In ethnographic terms, a fetish is an object of magical virtue, capable of embodying or transmitting an invisible force. In psychoanalytic terms, it functions as a symbolic equivalent for some erotic property or desired person. There is doubtless a phallic connotation to my little telescope and the memory of feminine sympathy is undeniably strong. My Viennese sunglasses make me remember that I travelled on the famous ferris-wheel and saw the city laid out below, tinted blue and beautiful. Perhaps all loved objects are miniatures that hint at a richer, broader reality: street-plans of foreign towns always have that effect on me. The loved object is a talisman which gives a focus to quite specific desires, and even when we lose it, indeed especially when we lose it, we learn to reflect on the regrettable conditions of possession at large, and on the difficulties of sustaining any relationship on a permanent footing. The occasional anguish prompted by the realisation that an object has fallen out of our pocket may also have a metaphysical tinge to it. We sit at the edge of a better world, but we can never clamber over that edge. In the end, we do adjust to the disquieting truth that we cannot hope to hold onto something indefinitely. Indeed, wisdom inheres in the recognition that our most cherished possessions are often things that have escaped our grasp. The lesson is simple. We must not clutch, we must not imprison and stifle that which is truly lovely and desirable. Instead we must savour its ephemeral presence, all the more intense for being so brief, and seek serenity by enduring the permanent ache of change. It's a prelude to coming to terms with our own vulnerability, for someday we're bound to lose touch with ourselves.