top of page

What a Pot Wants

JF Martel


In the revised version of his book Sex Secrets of the Black Magicians Exposed, the magician and philosopher Lionel Snell (a.k.a. Ramsey Dukes) suggests that when faced with the vexing problem of a car that won’t start when we most need it to, “the irrational question ‘How does it know I am in a hurry?’ may lead to a solution faster than the rational statement ‘it cannot possibly know.’”[1] For Snell, the reasons for this are mainly heuristic. From time to time, it behoves me to treat inanimate objects as though they were sentient, since doing so allows me to use "the full breadth of my mental capabilities" as I think through a problem.[2] More possibilities present themselves, and one of them—no doubt a mechanical one in the case of a stalled car—may well prove to be an answer that would have otherwise eluded me.


But can’t we go further than this? After all, the idea of a conscious car is no more “irrational” than that of a conscious lump of gray matter. Between a dead mass of tissue and a mass of tissue that experiences a world, there is an inexplicable leap. To maintain that a single brain cell is unconscious, but that ninety billion brain cells generate a mind, you must first account for how, at one point in the steady accumulation of brain cells, mind slips through the door. And this is impossible to do. It is what is known to contemporary philosophers as the Hard Problem of Consciousness. It is habit that assures us that the leap from brain to mind is more plausible than the leap from car engine to mind—habit run through a very peculiar metaphysical sieve. For centuries now, we moderns have cultivated a restrictive notion of mind that would exclude beings like cars, and we have done this even as the intuitive position held by every child and everybody who lived in the “childhood” of our civilization, maintains that there is no reason to think an automobile is less ensouled than a stuffed bear, a flame, a house cat, or a parent. Given that we are inexplicably conscious, it only makes sense to proceed from the assumption that everything else is also inexplicably conscious. From that perspective the Hard Problem goes away.


In his essay on the uncanny, Freud argues that individuals and societies all start off as animists, perceiving life, sentience, and intention in everything. For him, this is because young humans and “young” societies are narcissistic; they share a pathological conviction that things exist for their sake and essentially constitute an extension of themselves. This has always struck me as grossly unfair to societies that view all things as ensouled, which is to say virtually every other society.  Reading Freud's text today, one is tempted to place the pathology on his side inasmuch as Freud here is acting as a representative of Western metaphysical prejudice. Perhaps the real narcissism doesn't lie in the child and premodern human's reflexive belief that inanimate objects are as alive as they are, but in the belief that we arch-rationalists have such a monopoly on mind that we are free to dispense it to certain things and not to others. Perhaps the real narcissism lies in our stubborn, collective denial that Mind may exist outside of human skulls.


Whether they know it or not, modern artists have resisted this metaphysical exclusion from the start. That is because art, like magic, is a vestigial force, a thorn of antiquity that modernity cannot dislodge from its side. No work of art ever presents itself as simply another inanimate object. The work of art always presents itself as a creature—a person, even. It thinks, feels, and acts, and does so in full view. This is as true of paintings, drawings, and statuary as it is of novels, poems, and symphonies. But nowhere is the inherent animism of art more apparent, I think, than in pottery.


Indeed, the humble pot may be the art object that most definitively gives the lie to our impoverished conception of life and consciousness. The famous vase scene at the end of Yasujirõ Ozu's 1949 film Late Spring is a case in point. As the protagonist lies on her shikibuton at night, her mind slowly coming to grips with the life she must live, we suddenly cut from her face to a vase in the corner of the room. Inexplicably, the shot lasts several seconds, simply and limpidly framing the vase, solid and singular as it bears silent witness to the tears flowing from the young woman's eyes.


In notes he shared with me, Wes Maselli, a.k.a. Wes The Pants, relates something he heard from Mike Tye, who threw the pots in this exhibition. “A good pot is one that presents itself as self-evident. By its charismatic form [Wes's choice of words], the pot justifies its right to exist.” Can you come up with a better definition of the person than a being which, by force of inborn charisma, “justifies its right to exist?” Whenever we look upon an object and experience it as “self-evident,” it can only be because (a) we are artists, able to see it as an ensouled being in a world rather than an inert object in neutral space, or (b) we are ordinary people encountering a work of art.


The pot is more than a creation; it is a creature. You can’t look at it without it looking back at you. There are reasons why this feature of all artworks is so evident in pottery. Wes notes an important one: the fact that you can never see an entire pot. You only ever see one side of it, your mind’s eye suggesting its hidden face as it follows the contour into the invisible regions. When a pot's surface is painted, the images that adorn it share this quality of revealed concealment. The full power of the visual image then comes to the fore, as the curvature of the pot prevents us from maintaining the illusion that pictures are two-dimensional representations. They too are beings. They too think, feel, and act.


In the old Warner Brothers cartoons, characters would sometimes get out of trouble by slapping a portable hole on a wall and leaping into it. From a strictly rational point of view, the portable hole is a textbook example of a “contradictory entity.” For how can a hole be a thing? How can an absence be a presence? Yet in the pot we are presented with something like the portable hole. The pot is a vessel for empty space. It is impossible to imagine the pot without the space, since its material aspect, however well-made and beautifully decorated, is first and foremost the space it reveals to us. In her book Centering, the American poet M. C. Richards tells the story of a Chinese aristocrat asking a master potter how he creates such beautiful pots. The potter answers, “Oh, you are looking at the mere outward shape. What I am forming lies within. I am interested only in what remains after the pot has been broken.”[3]


As a vessel, the pot contains. That is how it acts. When the young woman in Late Spring lies near the vase, we sense that the pot contains the woman. The pot even contains the room in which it sits, just as the hedge-maze and mountains in Kubrick's The Shining are somehow located inside the Overlook Hotel. Likewise in this exhibition, the pot at the center of the room must be said to contain the room and everything in it. The painting, the drawing, the lines and colours on the pot’s surface: all are inside the pot. If the pot were broken, what would remain? Nothing and everything.


Wes's work tells us that all things are in relation. One thing exists in relation with another and only in relation with another. It is when we see relation as a primal feature of reality that things coalesce as creatures and persons. There is a paradox here: how can the pot simultaneously “justify its existence” as a singular being and assert the primacy of relation, such that nothing can exist on its own? It is not for me to solve this paradox, though I encourage you to follow its contour towards the hidden truths it may evoke. From the relational point of view, consciousness isn’t a property of certain clumps of matter; it is a way in which all singular beings act upon one another. The philosopher Martin Buber called this reality “I-Thou,” opposing it to the “I-It” that breeds monsters like the Hard Problem. In bringing his relational vision to pottery, Wes reminds us of realities that all art seeks to lay bare. The poet John Keats had good reason to choose an urn as his most intimate interlocutor: “Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness. Thou foster-child of silence and slow time...”[4]



JF Martel

Montreal, September 22, 2022.



[1] Ramsey Dukes, SSOTBME Revised: An Essay on Magic (El-Cheapo, 2000), opening page (unnumbered).

[2] Ibid., p. 58.

[3] M. C. Richards, Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person (Wesleyan University Press, 1962), p. 13.

[4] Opening lines of John Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn.”

bottom of page