Jackknife Theology and the Worship of Objects

Rock Island, IL

Perhaps you own a jackknife that belonged to your grandfather. Perhaps you are reluctant to use it just as in equal measure you are compelled to carry it. Maybe it is a better knife than any of your own; maybe it isn’t. If it can still cut, it is still a knife.

But its value is not as a knife; its value is as an object, specifically as an object that belonged to someone else, someone whose presence you wish in some measure to preserve. This person touched it every day, if only to put it is his pocket. He used it, either often or occasionally. Most likely he valued it, if not for its beauty than at least for its utility (though men who carry knives hardly ever value them for their mere ability to cut). To your grandfather the knife was probably more than a knife, just as to you it is more than a knife. The surplus of significance may not be the same to you as it was to him, but there is a surplus nonetheless.

The same goes for a little bureau in your house, the “secretary,” as you call it, that belonged to your wife’s grandmother. Its design is interesting; as a piece of furniture it is well-made, especially compared to what you see in similar pieces today. You use it and, in doing so, assign a use-value to it. But, as with at least one of your knives, there’s a surplus of value that attaches to the secretary—to you as, presumably, to your wife’s grandmother. Like a knife, the bureau is more than a bureau.

I am describing—or at least attempting to describe—at least two facts of human existence that I’m going to go ahead and call “mysteries.” One is that our attachment to certain objects, or objects of a certain kind or category, suggests at least this much about us: we are a species that craves presence. The other is that to us an object is never merely an object. It is always itself plus something else.

Another way to put this would be to say that, properly speaking, there is no such thing as an object. The world is not filled with objects. It is filled with images.

This second point interests me a great deal, and I will treat of it first. One thing that must be said is that “object,” though a useful word, is one that gets us only so far. “Idol” is probably more a more precise term for the mere object, for the difference between an idol and an image is simply this: an idol has no inside to it. Or, to put it another way, it doesn’t have anything on the other side of it. Its significance ends with itself. There is no surplus.

An image, by contrast, is always itself plus something else. A rainbow is a rainbow but it is also the mark of a new covenant. A fire is a fire but it is also a miniature allegory of life. (A life, like a fire, is “consumed with that which it was nourished by,” as the great bard said.) And we, too, are images. Or, if you prefer, we are icons. We have an inside, a something on the other side of us. This is why the objectification of a person isn’t merely offensive. It is a failure of imagination. To objectify is to treat an image as if it were a mere object or idol.

I cannot resist pointing out that it is we, not the primitives to whom we feel so superior, who are deeply superstitious. It is not they but we, the heirs of modern science, who are the idolaters, for it is we who inhabit a world of idols. Time was when everything was itself plus something else—that is, when everything was an image—but modern science has done away with all that. It has given us a vast universe filled with mere things. And I will say only in passing that one of our most important jobs is to recover that world of images. The knife, the bureau, the rainbow, the fire, your wife: images all. It is only when we covert an image into an object or idol that we abuse it. Observe, for example, our use of the four elements.

The first point, that we are a species that craves presence, may be more difficult of description, perhaps of acknowledgement, but it is not for these reasons less true. What the knife means to you, or the bureau to your wife, can be approached, explored, and, to some extent, understood but not, I think, fully explained. If there is a means of explanation, it is by way of analogy alone. (Thus it is with all mysteries.)

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