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My Kewpie Bobble-head
Smiling insipidly, this small porcelain doll has reflected tiny spots of light from its smooth surface without any change in expression for all the years in my possession. But what are those years? I have absolutely no recollection of when or how this shiny monster came into my life, nor from whom or in what circumstances. I know where it sits on the fireplace mantel near a black and white etching made by my sister when she was in art school half a century ago. Her print depicts our nuclear family in fantastic caricature, each of us drawn with terrifying surrealistic exaggeration. One of these, near which the bobble-head is perched, has a round head and eyes that resemble those of the doll, hence the choice of proximity. But in spite of this visual echo, the doll’s lineage remains obscure.
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The sheer survival of the object with its unchanged coy smile, body devoid of any conspicuous marks of gender, is far more banal than remarkable. Inertia is and remains the strongest force in any system of objects and relations. The doll is there because it would take more energy to remove it than let it stay. But something about its lack of clear history provides an opportunity to think about the way we/I periodize our lives. According to what landmarks and milestones, conditions or events, do the brackets of demarcation become established?
This doll is not emblematic of any era or epoch in my life. I know it has been with me since I moved to Los Angeles, and certainly since I first established the arrangement of objects on the mantel. Some newer arrivals have joined its ranks. A red ceramic whistle in the shape of a jaguar head, brought back from a trip to Cancun, has features that match another of the bizarre figures in my sister’s expressionistic etching. So it lives in the same neighborhood. A miniature bronze cast head, gift from a sculptor for whom I did a favor in the first year of my residence in Los Angeles, is at the other end of the mantel. Its corroded patina is paired with the gravel texture of a small painting, another gift for a favor from my Yale years in the 1990s. A few postcards and prints, mementos of travels or gifts, create their own zones of visual rhyme and associations, not grouped by era, but by similarities in their imagery. Most of these I could fix in time with a bit of effort, locating them in relation to distinct moments of before or after some key event.
But how fully do these vague or specific markers indicate anything about the shape of time as it is/was lived? My childhood memories may divide between what happened before a trip we took to Europe in the summer of 1958 and what came after, but for all the intensity of impressions that remain from that adventure, the life I was living at age six was not defined by that event. Nor did a terrible case of mumps in which I had to be treated for an abscess do much more than register like a signposted season. These milestone dates don’t say much by contrast to the epochs created by attending certain schools, having key relationships, living in places_or the multiple overlaps of these criteria of periodization.
Certain objects invoke a particular era. In fact the etching done by sister resonates with a powerful affective period of early family life infused as it is with her particular emotional perspective. Made when she was about nineteen, the image was a retrospective account of her experience, not a contemporary one, and registered her own charged sensations of being a child in the theatre of the nuclear family. But the dramas it portrayed were of long duration. The characters made present were mythic archetypes, individuals whose roles were outsized in relation to even their own understanding in ways that escaped a date-stamped time frame. But when that began and if it ended is not something the image can reveal, especially not at this distance. How is the historical dimension of family life defined? My father used to say he was raised by people who had been raised by Edwardians. Another European colleague recently mentioned that his great grandfather had met Napoleon. So, by association, he can connect to that event. The seepage of eras and epochs is stamped into our experience through codes of behavior, values, and protocols of another era in overlapping strata that layer the present with palimpsestic resonance.
But the Kewpie head carries none of this affective association with a temporal interval. I cannot place it in any of the systems of periodization that would normally organize my sense of my own past, such as the geographies through which I moved—East Coast, West Coast, Greece, Amsterdam, Paris, Texas, Cambridge (Mass), New York, New Haven, Charlottesville, and Los Angeles. Do these places map onto defined eras? Or do the other factors demarcate periods more dramatically than these bulky boxes of place? A winter in Connecticut on Candlewood Island in 1973 was a self-contained era with my then-boyfriend, a gentle highly-disciplined musician with whom I survived in a minimally heated summer cottage while we both worked to develop skills that became the foundation of later work. That was a bounded era, but its influence seeps even into the present through the body-memory trained into my drawing hand. He left my life long ago, but later, brief encounters with his siblings in various circumstances connected us back across time. Many periods have no easy boundaries. Time telescopes, shrinks and expands. During the pandemic we not only lost a sense of time, but of the coordinates by which it could be measured.
But even clearly demarcated periods often have undefined duration. I grew up in Philadelphia. The very statement carries the implications that formation within a time and cultural milieu imprints values and attitudes into lifelong behaviors. I return to that (literal) place at frequent intervals and have throughout my adult life. Of course, it is not the same place, changing according to many factors. The scenes of childhood have shifted away from my family house and into the associations called forth by still-familiar streets and house fronts, patterns in the sidewalk brick, sycamores I have known since they were young and slim. Philadelphia stays with me, in me, an ever-present thread within the twisted skein of other influences, but the childhood “era” of Philadelphia has long ago become remote, an ancient base to which the current superstructure has just a tentative connection. Only a small handful of relationships from my childhood remain as touchstones for continuity, people with whom to share and check references. The arc of those connections is not linear. They break and start up again, a segmented line stretching forward into ever smaller points of contact—but also backward into key events that become founding instances only recognized in retrospect. The effect of those crucial moments and connections can only be reckoned retrospectively, their value never proportional to any standard metric of time. An hour’s conversation with a friend of sixty years, even if it only happens after a break of six years, touches the groundwater of my psyche.
So the Kewpie bobble-head is not disconnected from a linear sequence of segments ordered like beads on a ground line in the forward time arrow, but lives within the complex strata of continuities and discontinuities. These layers combine the metaphors of psychic geology with those of atmospheric systems. Geographies and locations are often sharply bounded (e.g. I left Dallas in August 1988 and did not go back), but work, identity, and relationships are not. How long did I know S or R? The calculation involves depth, intensity, and the calculus of change over time. When did any specific project begin? How long did it take to develop, come to fruition? Some of these activities are more like thunderstorms, forming at different rates and only sometimes resulting in rain. In a complex career across a lifetime of change, how and where did an intellectual period begin or end? Only rarely does one break radically or completely with ideas even as they evolve or diminish.
All of this reflection registers in relation to the Kewpie, whose own stylistic history links to the early 20th century when the gifted designer-illustrator Rose O’Neill created an image derived in part from the head of a cupid. Kewpie, with its three part curls and childlike body, went viral after O’Neill first drew it in a cartoon in 1909. For a period, Kewpie kept O’Neill In public view and good financial circumstances. Later the flush faded and success diminished along with the doll’s popularity. The reference came into our childhood by way of my mother, who would sometimes shape our hair into the distinctive arrangement when it was thick with shampoo. Who, now, would invoke a Kewpie doll in their child’s hairstyle? Style is so clearly of an era. Broad shoulder pads, platform sandals, big hair—all unmistakable hallmarks of the 1980s, immediately recognizable. But did they define the decade? How? Was I someone else in the era in which I wore that now-unimaginably repulsive item pantyhose? Surely periods of time are not defined by the technology of undergarments—or are they? Talk about base and superstructure…
We prefer to imagine that significant parameters of periodization are relationships, locations, concerns, and institutional appointments. Family configurations and other social activities are shaped by ritual events. Tragedies and loss are never contained, they endure. Marriages, births, deaths, illnesses all provide their organizing frameworks for our lives. So do pets, attaching their identities to various eras of one’s life—the time of GooGoo and Cinderella, Punky, Moppsy and so on. What makes these definitions significant? Why bother to imagine the periodization of experience? What does it matter in relation to the larger history of culture in the world? Those strange and arbitrary seeming decade tags—the 50s, 60s? As if what occurred were homogenized by belonging to one ten-year span rather than another? Was there a Kennedy era? Or only an ongoing multi-faceted continuum within which the Kennedy family came into view. Did they define the era? The John Birch Society might argue otherwise. So might Khrushchev. What foregrounds a person in history and gives events their prominence?
The parallax of history creates a perspectival view, not an objective sight of all things lived located in a single frame. What was important shrinks to insignificance. Or expands to block another event from sight. Or is radically re-read in relation to later events. The mood, the tone, the smell associated with an era can pull it back with vivid immediacy. But the organization of memory into periods and epochs has no simple single structure neatly classified by time or other external metric. We live inside it—the lived memory and history—always seeing where we are from within the ongoing and unfolding confusion of factors by which each era acquires meaning.
The Kewpie bobble-head reminds me of no one, calls forth no particular associations with any era of my life. I keep it because its face and presence are among my familiars. It offers a curious case of an object with a past but no known history, a figure of non-determinate memory. Were it to vanish I would miss the look it returns to my own, its insipid smile and porcelain surface shining with points of light. Perhaps I like it because it invokes no temporal moment, nothing against which to measure loss or distance.
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