Sincerity and Totemic Objects

This is a replica of a chess piece carved from walrus tusk c. 1200 C.E. The piece is part of the Lewis Chess set – found on the isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides, in the 1800s.  in the 1200s, Lewis was controlled by the Kingdom of Norway, or so the British Museum tells me. The British Museum holds most of the pieces, although, if you read their article, you may detect a hint of defensiveness about that. 11 pieces were brought to the National Museum of Scotland, which is where I fell in love with this fierce, comical (to our eyes) Berserker.


The idea of a furious fighter, the idea of someone biting their shield in a rage, or to build rage, the appearance of this biting as nervousness, or fear, all captured my imagination. When we have multiple readings possible for the emotions of a figurine, which do we choose? How can we know, precisely, what the carver meant to signify? We can never hope to grasp the meaning, too much of a dark river cuts between us and the time in which the piece was made.


The piece (the real one, do I mean? Or its replica? Does it matter?) cannot speak to us to tell us. Walrus tusk (or whale teeth, of which some are made) have no sense of self, have only been given the appearance of something else. I recently read a fascinating article on interiority (or perceived lack of) and sincerity.


The article talks about how a person may lack the impression interiority if we cannot understand them. If you have no interiority, you cannot feel, you are numb, as a berserker made himself to the slice of edged weapons or to the lunging flame. Or rather, you are assumed to feel less, you are assumed less than human. Immune. A solid wall of fury or blankness. A monsterous other.


The article is written regarding ‘foreigners’ – non-native English speakers, where they cross over into a dominant culture which uses English. In the article, these foreign language users are presumed to be non-white, because the strongest point of reference in America to immigrants is that of the Hispanic immigrant, who is read as non-white (sometimes mildly problematic, I would imagine).


But I couldn’t help but think of myself as immigrant, as other, from my time in the US. To the treatment I sometimes received (in my extremely privileged position of white, middle class well educated, etc.) which othered me. The idea that I was not genuine – that my related experiences, as they did not always conform to the perceived image of an immigrant, a Scot, of a person in possession of a doctorate working as a dog walker and intern – were somehow inauthentic.


Because I did not speak Gaelic, I was not entirely pleasing. Because I could speak English, I was already American. Because my accent was different, it must be placed, and once placed (into the past, onto some static point of origin, and usually inaccurately – South African, say, or New Zealander) the person placing it would accuse me of not sounding ‘Scottish enough’.


I was a speaking surface, to be prodded or glossed over. Sometimes, particularly after a wearing day of questioning from strangers, I want to be silent. I wanted to refuse to be either sincere or in-. To bite on my shield with my coal-white eyes saying nothing except whatever could be read there. It was not a situation that could be sustained, to view immigration as a defensive stance, as if the country was coming to assimilate me, Borg-like and I should quietly fight back.


And so came Astral. And from the very earliest draft of Dear Friends and Gentle Hearts, the image of the berserker, biting down. Clamped, resistant.  She suffers, and loves the countryside too, and unstable-y contains much that I could not, until, of course, the tether starts to fray.


Here’s the article, and if you have any thoughts to add I would dearly love to hear them, because as you might guess, I’m still wrestling with certain snake-tails myself.


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