Will Self, novelist and journalist, on a prehistoric hand axe.
GB Tell me why you chose this.
WS I’d wanted to get hold of a hand axe for some time; I put out a few feelers and discovered that such artefacts are very easily faked, and that to be sure of obtaining the real thing I would need to be sure of its provenance. Out of the blue I was contacted by an authority on paleoanthropology who told me she had a hand axe for me, one that had been dug up near London. It was apparently a ‘blank’ which means they found two exactly the same at the same site, and she said she could let me have it, although I should never tell anyone exactly where it came from. The axe is dated to approximately 400,000 BCE, which is far older than any human artefact I ever imagined possessing – the age alone is a source of wondrousness for me, as if the fact that when you hold the axe properly, you can feel that the individual grips of fingers and thumb were incorporated into its design by the Homo Heidelbergensis (a close relative of the Neanderthals) who knapped it into being.
GB Do you own it? Does that attachment contribute to its beauty?
WS So yes: I own it – and owning it is important to me. It is my favourite object and I would be unhappy to lose it – yet it’s still simply an artefact, albeit one that connects contemporary smart phone users (these are about the same size as the axe) directly with their forbears, to produce a sense of humans-as-toolmakers stretching across the millennia.
GB There’s a great deal of mystery around these tools. Does that give the object a degree of difficulty that appeals to you?
WS I don’t know about mystery or difficulty – once you give the thing a heft and try to use it, it becomes blindingly obvious how it was wielded and you can easily extrapolate what it was probably used for; it’s this practicality that beams out of the thing, travelling up your arm as you raise and lower it, a current of vitality-as-praxis.
GB Has Modernism made you more comfortable with the idea of liking something even though can never fully grasp the meaning?
WS Well, I can’t really grasp the meaning of this question (and I feel perfectly comfortable with that); certainly I can never be certain of what the context the axe was in was like, but I don’t think that makes the object itself particularly incomprehensible.
GB Your hand axe is from near London. Does the fact that it’s local make you like it more?
WS Yes, the localness of the axe is pleasing to me. Like most tedious middle aged people I’ve become more interested in my forbears as I’ve grown older. I discovered a few years ago that the first Self ancestor to live in London was staying only a mile away from where I live now when he completed the 1841 census – and this connection through place and time feels to me sustained (almost to the point of infinity) by this near half-million-year-old artefact
GB Do you subscribe to the “killer Frisbee” theory – that these were thrown at birds and animals?
WS No. It’s not a killer Frisbee – it’s a hand axe, it was designed to knap other stones, carve wood, and particularly to break bones so the marrow could be extracted.
GB Do you think that the person who created this was concerned with the aesthetic of the tool? Could the extent of the carving and attention to symmetry go beyond mere function, making this an early form of art as well as a useful object?
WS Well, art can be inadvertent as well as consciously arrived at. It isn’t the sort of speculation I’ve indulged in – the connection for me is physical: I touch this other hand or hands when I hold the axe; labelling as ‘art’ would seem to me a solecism on a par with the spurious twaddle that passes for art criticism nowadays.
GB Your own work is very much concerned with truth. How do you see the relationship between truth and beauty? (E.g. what do you make of Keats: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”)
WS I believe things are true inasmuch as they cohere with one another; correspondence or correlation with an assumed world separate from the aesthetic formulation is nonsensical for me, so I resile from Keats’s statement.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
WS That it be pleasing, proportionate, interesting, involving and… succulent. My hand axe conforms to this paradigm – and I’m sucking it right now as I type.