Phenomenological Psychology

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Pencils

March 30th, 2007 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

I always have preferred pencils over pens.  There are several reasons for this.  First, I enjoy the tactility of lead against paper.  #2 pencils are best.  Like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, #1’s are too soft, while #3’s are too hard.  Second, one can erase, if one feels like it.  Third, I like their transience, their impermanence.  I hear tell that legal documents must be signed in ink, to militate against this effect.  This requirement is silly.  Even with the best eraser, one always can tell where something has been erased.  Pencils leave their tell-tale indentations in paper, just like pens.  When I was in elementary school, someone (accidentally, I’m sure) stabbed my arm with a pencil.  Even now, years later, I can point to the spot on my arm where the lead left its mark.

Fourth, they can be had inexpensively.  A fine box of #2 pencils, which will last for at least a month or more (your mileage may vary), costs no more than a cup of coffee at Starbucks.  Concededly, this also is true of inexpensive ball-point bens.  However, that is not a valid comparison.  Cheap ballpoint pens, such as those given away by banks, or that mail-order companies send with the enticing come-on “your name here,” or of the kind that leaked all over one’s binder in elementary school, are worse than useless.  It would take the finest Mont Blanc pen to compare with the lowliest #2 pencil.

Fifth, they promote a more civilized, urbane mode of exposition.  The computer accelerates one’s thoughts like a cyclotron, because it effortlessly responds to the pressure of one’s fingers, as one speedily types out the words one has thoughtlessly conceived, in order to express one’s thought (whatever sense can be made of these terms).  The pencil, on the other hand, prevents one’s thoughts from getting too far ahead of one’s ability to express them, by writing them down.  It therefore is far more suitable to our situation as recently-evolved mammals, who have more in common with bonobos and chimpanzees than with any other species.  The pencil more appropriately matches the processing speed our brains have evolved, over time. 

There are few things more inspiring to me, when I write, than a nice fresh box of #2 pencils.  Far more enticing and conducive to writing than, say, the keys of a typewriter, or a blank computer screen.  It is satisfying to sharpen them.  They smell good, like fresh wood chips.  In deference to modern technology, I long ago dispensed with the hand-crank sharpener, though I have to admit it concealed pleasures all its own.  I never did like the tiny little portable sharpeners, because they were ineffective.  They also were dangerous, because of their sharp, razor-blade-like sharpening mechanism.  They probably are illegal now, for that reason.

I now have three electric sharpeners – one upstairs, one downstairs, and a cute portable, battery-powered one.  The portable one actually delivers the best shave.  It creates a perfectly conical shape, delicately exposing the lead interface.  It also stops automatically after it has achieved the correct taper, so as not to grind the pencil into oblivion.  I bought it out of need when I was staying for a week with my mother-in-law, and had plenty of time to write.  I genuinely have been delighted with its performance.  Cost-wise, one must factor in the need for replacement batteries, but I don’t think I’ve replaced them, even once.  Besides, the cost can’t be too much more than the amount of electricity consumed by the electric pencil-sharpener.  And then there is the portability factor, which (on margin) more than outweighs any minor cost differential.

Of the two fixed-installation sharpeners, I prefer the downstairs one to the upstairs one.  Though it would, of course, be a simple matter to shift their respective positions.  I doubt I would notice if this happened.  The pencil sharpener is one of those pieces of equipment we deploy non-consciously to accomplish a result, that is, the sharpening of the pencil.  It solicits us to sharpen the pencil.  One does not “notice” the pencil has become dull.  Rather, there comes a time, when writing, when one simply stuffs it into the sharpener.  The sharpener in turn responds with a soft purr, as one composes one’s thoughts.  The page invites one to resume writing, so one does.

I recently ran across a cache of old pencils.  The wood encasings had become brittle with age.  The erasers had deteriorated, and no longer were useful.  I never have liked those little eraser “hats” one can put on top of a pencil.  The cup by which they attach to the pencil’s shaft isn’t deep enough, so they fall off.  The tips break of.  So, this wasn’t an option.  Fortunately, around the same time, I ran into a cache of old erasers.  I can’t account for this coincidence, as both were in spatially distant places.  Nor can I account for the accumulation of either pencils, or erasers.  From their condition, both looked as though they were left over from elementary school

The erasers were approximately 2” long by 1” wide by 3/8” thick, and were of the “Pink Pet” variety.  Their surfaces had hardened and become encrusted with grime.  A vigorous rubbing of their carapaces exposed the soft, unused skin underneath.  They actually turn out to be pretty good at erasing, which (after all) is their sole job function.  They provide a nice complement to the older pencils.  The separate eraser extends the older pencil’s useful life.  Similarly, the separate eraser has no use, except in juxtaposition to the pencil.  So they make, shall we say, good counterparts, a nice pair. 

I am confident that by introducing both into the usual rotation, there will come a time when they have fulfilled their destiny, that is, to helpfully and uncomplainingly assist me to transcribe my thoughts, such as they may be.  They are intermediaries in the creation of the work.  So, for that matter, is the paper upon which their lead is traced, which typically is a draft of something-or-other, unceremoniously discarded upon completion of the work.  Occasionally it is a challenge to interpret one’s own scribbly hieroglyphs.  This, however, lends a frisson of excitement to an otherwise boring task, and actually can provide a platform, or launching pad, for further exposition.

The array of pencils, erasers, and sharpeners works fine for a fixed installation, such as the office or the dining room table.  It is cumbersome, though, when on the move.  At a lecture, for instance, or when driving I one’s car, or just when thinking stray thoughts, it is possible – even likely, that one will be seized by the urge to write something down.  I am, at least.  It would be impractical, if not peculiar, to drag out one’s sharpener, and start sharpening away.  Furthermore, it would be rude one’s neighbors, whose continuity of experience thereby would become disrupted.

Such was the impetus, I believe, behind the invention of the mechanical pencil.  A peculiar contraption, its operation is the exact reverse of the regular pencil.  One pushes a thin lead down through an aperture that restrains it, rather than sharpening it from the working edge up.  The lead also retracts, promoting ease of transportation.  Even if one left the lead extended, it protrudes no more than 1/8”, and the worse that could happen is it breaks off.  Whereas the lead of the conventional wood pencil is sheathed by the sturdy armor of the wood, which provides lateral support.  The regular wood pencil is so strong, it contains within itself the capacity to become an arrow, or, more true to scale, a dart.  I can remember in grade school actually biting down on them, leaving tooth marks up and down their sheath, like some kind of beaver.  And, launching them with a rubber-band and a ruler, letting them soar across the room.

Another attractive feature of the mechanical pencil is its rejuvenative capacity.  One can stuff several replacement leads into the trunk of the pencil itself.  One also can carry a small plastic quiver of replacement leads in one’s briefcase, backpack, or coat pocket.  This replenishability fundamentally is unlike that of a wood pencil, which, hydra-like, consumes itself as it discharges its duty.  In principle a mechanical pencil might last forever, with no loss of function, if continuously resupplied. 

Given the simplicity of their apparatus, mechanical pencils basically come in three styles: cheap, medium and fancy.  Insofar as I can discern, there is no essential difference between them.  In addition to colliding with objects, or rather, impinging on their space, I have a predilection for inadvertently abandoning small things (verging on larger ones, too), at various places.  Sometimes I will come across them months later; more frequently, they become shrouded in mists of time. 

I also tend to drop things, by maintaining too light of a grip on them.  They succumb to the inexorable forces of gravity, and tumble from my hand.  One of my favorite hobbies seems to be letting objects slide from my grasp, juggle my arms around all akimbo to try and catch them, only to come up empty-handed.  I have discovered it actually is easier simply to let them fall, but then observe to where they scurry off to hide, rather than attempting to interdict them in mid-air.

As a consequence of these tendencies, I have become adept at losing all kinds of things, such as pencils (mechanical or otherwise), or sunglasses.  For reasons of practical economics, therefore, I have tended to gravitate towards the least-expensive variety.  On margin, there is no compelling reason to elect the more costly alternative.  It is no more serviceable, or fit to accomplish its purpose.  It is no more admirable, aesthetically.  And, its handling characteristics are such that it is just as likely to become lost, with resultant economic detriment. 

Every time I have violated this principle, I have come to regret it.  I should say it only applies to small, fungible objects.  The factors that must be considered in connection with the acquisition of larger objects, or special-purpose ones, or aesthetic ones, are completely different.

Recently, I was confronted with something of a quandary.  Over time, I had accumulated a half dozen or so inexpensive mechanical pencils.  Each was perfectly serviceable (albeit vulnerable to loss).  Each had withstood the downward march of generations of replacement leads.  The problem was, their erasers gradually were receding, as a result of use.  I once had what I only can describe as a mechanical eraser pencil, i.e., it was a long cylinder of eraser, pushed down through a tube, but otherwise entirely similar in appearance and operation to a regular mechanical pencil.  Unfortunately, it is lone gone, and no longer seems to be commercially available. 

Much the same condition has afflicted the supply of replacement erasers – the kind that fit into, and protrude from, the top, upon which one pushes, to extrude the lead.  For a while, I carried around one of the Pink Pets.  They were meant, however, to be used with wood pencils, not mechanical ones.  It was jarring and unpleasant to pair the Pink Pet with a mechanical pencil.  I could not acclimate myself to this dissonance.  Exacerbating the problem, I still had a plentiful supply of replacement leads.

Bewildered, I wandered the aisles of a local office supplies store.  I was astonished when I stumbled upon a package of 24 mechanical pencils, for the eminently reasonable price of around $5.00 – little more, in fact, than the cost of a couple of containers of replacement leads. 

My first impulse was that this was ontologically inefficient.  Why propagate additional entities, and take on the burden of additional objects in my life, when I am striving desperately to expatriate the multitude that presently ensnare me?  I am, so to speak, ontologically vulnerable.  But they looked so shiny, and new.  They had been carefully ensconced in their packaging, arrayed like sardines in a tin.  Surely they had not been stuffed by hand, but what automated process accomplished such a sophisticated result?  If the retail mark-up was (say) 100% of the wholesale price, what factory in Asia had been able to fabricate and export them so cheaply?  They appeared to be sturdy, and well-made.  “Buy us,” they whispered beguilingly, calling like the sirens to Odysseus. 

So I did.  I wrestled them open, and lined them up in front of me, each identical to the other, each awaiting its call to action.  They were fatter, with more features – a better hold of the lead, a thicker sheaf, a metal clip, and a little rubber-like collar, the better to grip them.

There remained one last unpleasant task, which was to dispose of the worn husks of their now obsolete predecessors.  I thought about just abandoning them in various places, but that would not solve the eraser problem, the economics of lead consumption, or the widespread availability of newer, inexpensive models.  They were tattered and dilapidated, displaced by their successors. 

Besides, it was beneath their dignity.  Their use would be haphazard and coincidental, not the product of deliberate action.  I emptied them of spare leads, and thanked them for their exemplary service.  Seeing as how they did not each have a proper name, I did not conduct funerals.  Rather, I lovingly laid them into the trash-can, and bid them adieu.  Like the passage of cultures, I wish there was a way for them to transfer their generational knowledge to their successors.  Would that the things they had written, could be inculcated within the new. 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

1.            The author describes the “essential nature” of mechanical pencils.  In what respects is this similar to Plato’s account of “idealized forms”?

2.            Compare and contrast the author’s tendency to drop objects with Merleau-Ponty’s concept of “maximum grip.”

3.            What does the author mean by “using the pencil as an implement” and “responding to the solicitations of the paper.”  Wouldn’t it be easier just to say, “the author intended to write some words, so he used the pencil and paper to do so”?

4.            Analyze the author’s orientation vis-à-vis pencils in terms of Fairbairn’s Object Relations Theory.

5.            Describe your own experiences with small objects.  How does your perspective change as your focus on them becomes increasingly granular?

6.            At several points the author tends to anthropomorphize the objects being discussed.  From this, can you draw any (valid) inferences about the author’s personality?

7.            Do you believe the author is confined to a mental institution?  Analyzes the reasons pro and con to this hypothesis.