Research Notes · 09/18/2015

Philosophical Toys

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Susanna Medina writes about Philosophical Toys from Dalkey Archive.


Philosophical Toys … & Connecting Neuro Clusters …

Every new book, it’s like beginning anew and yet, there are a series of concerns, ideas that keep coming back like a chorus. Most of my work so far has dealt with the unconscious, art, cinema, desire, the image, objects, gender and social critique. Every writing decision brings out its own neuro clusters of associations, personal constellations of memories, readings, obsessions, recurrent question marks, as well as longings for other worlds. All my books to date share in common an attempt to write in-between-the-genres, to push the boundaries of genres and do something different. Red Tales, which was recently published in a bilingual edition, interweaves narrative and the fragment, creating various tensions. It is very writerly, in a way Philosophical Toys couldn’t possibly be. Philosophical Toys continued the in-between-the-genres line by foregrounding ideas rather than dissolving them in the narrative. Switching from writing in Spanish to writing in English, I had to work with linguistic limitations, like Perec writing without the letter ‘e.’ Writing in English was an Oulipo-like experiment. Propelling me in this experiment was also Beckett’s back to basics when he decided to write in French. Philosophical Toys’ narrator had to be non-English, a necessary alibi, which in turn brings musings on language, translation and living between two cultures. Rather than working on the language itself, I thought I had to make good use of other devices such as rhythm, ideas, plot and structure. Before embarking on this piece of writing, I was into brief forms, aphorisms, stories. I was weary of ‘the novel’ and writing in English made it more of a challenge. It even became a way of learning English. Experimenting writing in a second language, reconciled me with the novel. Maybe the passing of time did too.

You can say every word branches out into its own universe. It taps into multiple sources. Of course, this is the idea behind psychoanalysis and free word association. So, the very title of the book, two words, brought about these two separate strands, furnishing the novel with Nina, the main character, who, through her parents enigmatic ‘inheritance’ becomes a philosopher, and toys, as a metaphor for infantile consumerism, but also a figure to speak about various ways of relating to your inner child. But the words taken together were there from the very beginning to refer to the puzzling passion a shoe fetishist has for footwear, it was a kind of joke, as shoes become truly perplexing. And by extension, to refer to actual things, as objects of enquiry.

So, how did the title come about? … I have this wonderful little cobalt blue booklet called Essays on Dolls published` in 1994. It has a brief essay called ‘The Philosophy of Toys’ (a couple of pages) by Baudelaire. It also has two other brief essays by Von Kleist and Rilke. I read it and loved it, and it was visible around my studio for a while, a few years before I embarked upon Philosophical Toys. Undoubtedly, my mental library unearthed this beautiful artefact when I thought about the title of the novel, though my book has nothing to do with Baudelaire’s essay or pre-cinema optical toys like zoetropes. One of the things I wanted to write about was objects, how objects translate thought into matter, and I wanted to write about toys, as some artists from my generation were using toys in their work. I found it interesting, the kiddification of my own my generation and the way we’re quite happy with it. With hindsight, if the main character is called Nina, which means ‘doll’ in Catalan, it’s because of this exquisite little cobalt blue book … I didn’t know any Ninas at the time. Most of the characters in my writing before then, have no name. Let’s say my mind must have plugged into the word ‘inanimate,’ ‘doll,’ ‘philosophical toys,’ and go into translation mode. ‘Nina, my name is Nina,’ are the first words I wrote, and they felt right. So, your unconscious makes all these decisions that feel right without you knowing ‘why.’

I started writing Philosophical Toys while I was doing an MA in Hispanic Studies. I was ‘allowed’ to do a creative project, so that was the very first sketchy outline for my novel. Interested in the irrational and the image, I worked on fetishism and Buñuel (Surrealism has always interested me greatly, and Buñuel remains at the top of twentieth century filmmakers). Another strand that recurs in my writing is parents as emissaries of the irrational. When you are child your vision of the world is shaped by your parents. They’re your educators. When you grow up, you start finding out more about their flaws, to what extent they might or might not be an example to follow … In the spirit of joyful subversion I thought: why not make the father a possible shoe fetishist? … And the daughter-narrator someone who thus starts wondering about fetishism? … ‘The Penis Nightmare,’ which has proved a popular chapter, comes from this initial research, as do the chapters where Nina is watching the Buñuel tapes.

I began writing this novel after a year of being really ill, when I lost all my hearing (I struggled with sudden hearing loss for three years). I was invited to do a talk at Senate House for Buñuel’s Centenary. I thought, how the hell I’m going to give a talk if I can’t hear my own voice? So, when I put all the relevant images from Buñuel’s films on the Mac, to illustrate my talk, I thought right, I’m going to do a film. I had been wanting to do a film for a while, and I had the perfect excuse. With an impending deadline, the film took three days to make, though behind it there was one year of research. Luckily, my partner, Derek Ogbourne, is an excellent (video) artist and editor, who has all the technology and know-how. The short film is an offshoot from the novel, an essay version of the Buñuel chapters. At the time, this little film, a gem, dare I say, circulated a lot: Buñuel’s Philosophical Toys. A few years later, under a similar impending deadline, we made another spontaneous film, Leather-bound Stories. Philosophical Toys’ cover is a still from the film, which is an extremely condensed version of my novel, and, it provided an extra frame to the book: the red notebook.

Objects from the film ‘Leather-bound Stories,’ shown at The Freud Museum, London

Ideas start spelling out links to each other. The writing speaks, makes its own connections and asks you to do further research on them. There’s an anonymous collector, so I invented a collecting background for his wife and ended up researching cabinets of curiosity, wunderkammen, which defy taxonomies based on reason. Nina is from Almería, a place in southern Spain I’ve never been to. So it was like virtual tourism: a bit of a holiday through pictures and bits of information from here and there. I’ve done this a few times, write about places I’ve never been to as a way of going elsewhere.

Back in the 90s, I was writing art criticism, both in English and Spanish. I wrote this review about this really powerful exhibition at the Royal Academy ‘Africa: The Art of a Continent,’ in 1995. I was astonished to find out about power figures, known as nail fetishes, from Central Africa. They’re called Nkisi nkondi power figures. With hindsight again, this exhibition planted the first seeds of my interest in the word ‘fetish’ and how it has been used to designate objects that are portals to the irrational. It is a term that invites you to revisit anthropology, Marxism and psychoanalysis: from African fetishes, to Marx who used it to speak about capitalism and commodities, to Freud who sees the sexual fetish as a reassuring object that wards off castration anxiety. Nina explores all of this and she also ends up writing about the fascinating history of the word ‘fetish,’ how it originated in seventeenth-century Catholic Portugal and was applied to Africans as a derogative term. There are a series of essays by Pietz which are really interesting and enlightened me as to the first usage of the word.

Like Nina, the narrator, who refers to herself as a knowledge fetishist, I love research. With the internet we’ve all become information junkies. With typical irony, J.G. Ballard said: ‘One looks forward to the day when the General Theory of Relativity and the Principia will outsell the Kamasutra in back-street bookshops.’ I completely subscribe to this type of sexuality. The brain is an erogenous organ.

Still from the film ‘Leather-bound Stories’


Susana Medina is the author of Red Tales (bilingual edition, 2012, co-translated with Rosie Marteau) and Philosophical Toys (Dalkey Archive Press, 2015) – offspring of which are the praised short films Buñuel’s Philosophical Toys and _Leather-bound Stories _ (co-directed with Derek Ogbourne). Her other books are the poetry and aphorisms collection Souvenirs del Accidente (2004) and Borgesland, A voyage through the infinite, imaginary places, labyrinths, Buenos Aires and other psychogeographies and figments of space (2006). She has been awarded The Max Aub International Short Story Prize and is the recipient of a writing grant from the Arts Council of England, for her novel Spinning Days of Night.  Her story ‘Oestrogen’, translated by Rosie Marteau, is featured in Best European Fiction, 2014. Medina has published a number of essays on literature, art, cinema and photography, and curated various well-received international art shows in abandoned spaces.