A Touch Too Late

I could place each one of them in my pocket and make it my companion. Were they, once, someone's companions?

Netsuke British Museum

Halfway up the baroque staircase leading to the first floor, a marble Caryatide. Her hand is reached towards me as an invitation for touch.

Roman, about AD 140-170. Her fingers, all but the thumb, are discontinued, broken off – like a child’s hand slapped because it touched the wrong object. But time on marble instead of skin on skin. The destructive effect of playing with fire – that is, of being alive –  always begetting new imprints of trauma. I want to take her hand but am disallowed by the rules and conventions of visiting a museum. One is not supposed to touch any objects, only look. My fingers will remain unslapped.

I’ve come to the wrong room, a dead end for what I’ve come for. I take the stairs back down and look for the South Stairs to lead me to the 5th floor. As if reading my mind, a large poster reads: “Get closer as a Member. Help preserve two million years of history.” But no – it is not preservation but its opposite – the touch – that I’ve come for.

All around, objects inviting me into a conversation. But I am too rushed, too determined on my destination to spare them the amount of attention that would be sufficient. I prefer elusion over giving false promises.

More ignorance, more non-attention and non-giving – all mine. One room. Second Room. Mummies. No. Go forward I must. I know they are waiting, elsewhere, soon. Fourth floor. Fifth floor. The walls have turned from stone to wood. I mount along these stairs as if along the architectural trends. I arrive.

Here they are, the tiny statuettes: Japanese carved toggles called Netsuke. Twenty-five in total, the sign telling there are 2,300 exemplars in total in the museum’s collection. The tokens are about 5cm tall, some slightly taller. I could place each one of them in my pocket and make it my companion. Were they, once, someone’s companions?

The Netsuke, animal- and human-shaped, are placed on a white terraced shelf, three floors in total. Placed about 15cm apart from each other, the tokens form a segregated choir humming mystical wisdom; their shared song is a lamentation over losing one’s carrier. Once, together with their human carrier – or, perhaps, the Netsuke themselves were carrying the masters they’d chosen – the tokens formed two halves of a symbol. Symbol, from the Greek word symbolon which meant, in the ancient world, half of a knucklebone carried as a token of identity to someone who had the other half. Bone, ivory, wood – the statuettes are carved of earth, just like the animals and humans they represent have come from earth.

Netsuke British Museum

Stag antler. Yes, I have come for you. Raccoon-dog dressed as a priest, carved of stag antler. It is you I have chosen to be touched by. And I will try, although there’s this whiteness and glass separating you from my hand in my pocket. The raccoon-dog token is in seated position, its body enmeshed in a priestly attire so silken it seems to melt over surface. A pond of speckled ivory over the white shelf.

As if overseeing a courtly proceeding, the animals’ majestic pointed black head reaches forward. Its interests are turned inward; it does not want to talk to me. Not like this, not under these unfavorable circumstances. Perhaps, in another place at another time but both are impossible to reach right now. Impossible to reach ever again. The Netsuke have been turned into museum exhibits, into objects to be looked at but no longer touched or heard. And so they have turned all their mystery to be guarded inwardly.

Will they ever forgive us? The question is beside the point. Damage, once committed, cannot be erased nor hidden. No matter how skilled we become at erasing and altering our own human memories and histories, we remain incapable of entering any mystical object’s consciousness. In the white space filling the sky around the nebulae of statuettes, there lingers a blasphemy so thick no sound can pass through it.

And yet – the Netsuke are not strangers to each other, they share a multi-layered collective memory. Perhaps, some of them were carved by the same hands, of the same stag horn or walrus ivory or wood. The longer I stand here, the longer our shared collective memory extends. It is bound to remain forever short compared to the memory of the Netsuke. 

It is time for me to go. I give them one last look. The twenty-five Netsuke, standing in affinity instead of alienation. And me, incapable of forging a touch. And yet touched.