Essay

Joined with Gold

In response to the deadly attack at the offices of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris this week, this image has been circulating widely online:

v2-Banksie-main

Originally, attributed to the underground artist, Banksy, the art really belongs to a London illustrator, Lucille Clerc. Clerc’s piece resonates, I think, because of its powerful message of hope: in being broken the pencil isn’t destroyed at all; rather, one pencil has now become two—doubling the “voice” of the pencil, rather than obliterating it.

As a Calvinist, brokenness is a given, of course. We talk a good bit about it (and rightly so).  For me, of late, it’s become less of a theological abstraction, however. So I’ve been thinking a lot about another artistic response to brokenness: the Japanese art of kintsugi. Kintsugi—which literally means “joined with gold”—is exactly that: a technique of restoration. But with an important difference: a shattered piece of pottery (a bowl, a teacup, a plate) is not discarded, but instead an artisan mends it back together. Rather than conceal the work of repair and restore the object to looking “as good as new,” however, the craftsperson does exactly the opposite and highlights the sites of repair with gold. In so doing, the object not only regains its use, but actually becomes more valuable and more beautiful than in its original form.

bowl-1

 

 

 

 

 

 

In our disposable culture, what a powerful idea: that to be damaged, even significantly, does not require discarding.  That restoration is not only possible, but that the broken is more lovely than the perfect.  That the signs of repair are not marks of failure to be hidden, but marks of witness to enable celebration to the one who repairs us–and with the most precious materials.

I have a poet friend for whom, when I shared the idea of kintsugi with her, it reminded her of a poem by Jane Hirschfield–which talks of other metaphors for the strength we find, the “proud flesh” that develops–but only after we are broken.

 

For What Binds Us

by Jane Hirschfield

There are names for what binds us:

strong forces, weak forces.

Look around, you can see them:

the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,

nails rusting into the places they join,

joints dovetailed on their own weight.

The way things stay so solidly

wherever they’ve been set down—

and gravity, scientists say, is weak.

 

And see how the flesh grows back

across a wound, with a great vehemence,

more strong

than the simple, untested surface before.

There’s a name for it on horses,

when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh,

 

as all flesh,

is proud of its wounds, wears them

as honors given out after battle,

small triumphs pinned to the chest—

 

And when two people have loved each other

see how it is like a

scar between their bodies,

stronger, darker, and proud;

how the black cord makes of them a single fabric

that nothing can tear or mend.

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.

Leave a Reply