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Nietzsche and The Philosophy of Umbrellas

How the philosopher's musings on his lost umbrella raises deeper philosophical questions
umbrella
He was using his power to get sex. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Tucked away amongst Friedrich Nietzsche's unpublished manuscripts is a small fragment of text, neatly enclosed in quotation marks: "I have forgotten my umbrella." The remark stands on its own, devoid of contextualising information and just as perplexing to the Nietzsche devotee as it is to the lay philosopher. In his slim volume Spurs: Nietzsche's Styles, Jacques Derrida interrogates this fragment for every shred of meaning - or not-meaning - it may hold, leading readers through a labyrinth of possibilities:

“Could Nietzsche have disposed of some more or less secret code, which, for him or for some unknown accomplice of his, would have made sense of this statement?” 

Or perhaps,

“What if Nietzsche himself meant to say nothing, or [at] least not much of anything, or anything whatever? Then again, what if Nietzsche was only pretending to say something? In fact, it is even possible that it is not Nietzsche's sentence...” 

Almost gleefully, Derrida references scholars who, convinced that Nietzsche's words represent "an aphorism of some significance," are confounded at every turn. Frustrations around the essential unknowability of this text are perhaps compounded by the prosaic nature of the object in question, for, as Derrida writes,  

“Everyone knows what "I have forgotten my umbrella" means. I have... an umbrella. It is mine. But I forgot it.”

Likewise, everyone who knows what "I have forgotten my umbrella" means also knows what "umbrella" means. But what the word signifies is quite another question.

The philosophy of umbrellas is a curious and little-studied field. For the most part its existence is fleeting, glimpsed in unexpected moments, lurking  much like an umbrella  just out of sight in a novel, or glancingly addressed in an essay before the writer's attention turns elsewhere: a subject to be pieced together from centuries'-worth of casual mentions. Derrida's Spurs contains one of the most, if not the most, sustained interrogations of umbrella-meaning in Western literature. But he is not entirely alone. A handful of writers and essayists have turned their attentions to the objects with varying ratios of vigour, humour and style, adding a rich seam of philosophical enquiry to the curious - and diverse - history of the umbrella. 

So what meaning, exactly, is to be found in an umbrella? For many, an umbrella is nothing more or less than its (highly distinctive) shape. Derrida was particularly concerned with the form of an umbrella - specifically a closed umbrella. He memorably described it as "the hermaphroditic spur... of a phallus which is modestly enfolded in its veils, an organ which is at once aggressive and apotropaic, threatening and/or threatened." This description of an umbrella as both masculine and feminine is an unusual one; in art and literature, most sexual allusions to umbrellas riff exclusively on their somewhat phallic appearance when closed. And while a closed umbrella can remind us of many other forms - walking stick, sword, lance, gun, club, wand, staff - all are haunted with the implied violence Derrida references, that of spur-like objects which "might be used in a vicious attack" or indeed "as protection against the threat of such an attack, in order to keep it at a distance, to repel it..."

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 "The philosophy of umbrellas is a curious and little-studied field. For the most part its existence is fleeting, glimpsed in unexpected moments, lurking  much like an umbrella  just out of sight"
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Real-world and fictional umbrellas bear out this truth. Savage blows have been dealt by many a brolly throughout history, most notably those inflicted by an angry mob in Milan in 1814, when finance minister Giuseppe Prina was dragged from his home and clubbed to death with umbrellas in the 'Battle of the Umbrellas', or the poison-dart firing model used to kill Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov with a pellet of ricin in 1978. Various self-defence manuals have included sections on umbrella attack and defence manoeuvres.  In one of the earliest science fiction films, Georges Méliès'  ‘Le Voyage dans la Lune’ (A Trip to the Moon, 1902), a gaggle of astronomers dispatch humanoid moon-dwellers with savage blows from rolled-up umbrellas - at which the unfortunate beings vanish in a plume of smoke. Derrida draws attention to the English and German words spur/Spur, the latter of which carries meanings of "trace, wake, indication, mark" - a fitting echo of a moment in Emma Healey's novel Elizabeth is Missing, when a woman hits the main character with her umbrella: "There was a bruise on my shoulder for weeks after that... It was the same colour as the mad woman’s umbrella, as if it had left a piece of itself on me."  

Closed umbrellas, of course, tell only half the story. Spread, umbrellas can be likened to many things: mushrooms, parachutes, shields, leaves, hats, bells, skirts, skies - even, when inverted, boats. Charles Dickens, over the course of hundreds of references throughout his essays and fiction, likened umbrellas to all manner of objects, including cabbages and birds. In Will Self's novel Umbrella, a character transforms with her umbrella into a piece of thistle-fluff, into a bell 

“He sees Mimi blown thistledown, rising up from the embankment beside the Isle of Dogs foot tunnel, her body gently clapping inside the gleaming bell of her transparent plastic umbrella.” (Italics in original)

In ‘Le Voyage dans la Lune’, one of the astronomers plants his open umbrella in the ground - only for it to take root, and grow into a huge mushroom. 

Derrida has little to say about open umbrellas, but American playwright Sarah Ruhl hits the nail on the head when she describes the effect an open umbrella can have on the posited universe of a theatrical set, implying rain where there is none: 

“The illusion of being outside and being under the eternal sky is created by the real object. A metaphor of limitlessness is created by the very real limit of an actual umbrella indoors… The umbrella is real on stage, and the rain is a fiction… A real thing… creates a world of illusory things.” 

The mere presence of an open brolly lends a gilding of verisimilitude to the entire endeavour at hand. That said, an open umbrella does not only signify rain in the confines of a playhouse stage. It will do so almost anywhere. On the side of a box, say, to indicate that the box and its contents ought to be protected from the wet. Or in the hands of passers-by outside when you are checking the weather out the window. It is a neat twist of logic, that an object designed to maintain dryness has come to signify conditions of wetness. 

But brollies are not limited to their static forms, closed and open: they also possess stunning transformative power, both visually and functionally. Nineteenth-century umbrella-maker William Sangster tells of a colonial picnic party in India, rudely interrupted by the appearance of a large Bengal tiger. One particularly brave and enterprising lady grabbed her umbrella and opened it - foomf! - in the tiger's face; startled, he fled and the party was left in peace. I would contend that very few everyday objects enact such a radical change when we put them to use, or that each of its states of being may be of such practical use (walking stick, weapon; rain-shield, fashion statement... tiger-frightener). Samuel Beckett explores the umbrella's dichotomy of form versus function in this fragment from Molloy, where the title character must choose between its use as support or as shelter:

"Was I to go on leaning on my umbrella and get drenched or was I to stop and take shelter under my open umbrella?"

The sheer adaptability and metaphoric power of umbrellas brings us to another aspect of umbrellaness  their liminality.  Umbrellas are creatures of the margins, crossing all kinds of boundaries: outside/inside, wet weather/dry weather, weapon/defence. They gather in our homes and workplaces, entirely overlooked until the sky closes in on us, when they suddenly take on significance, transforming from idle bundles into useful, purposeful objects. Once they've served their purpose and return indoors, they flock to every available surface - colourful cormorants hanging their wings out to dry. 

However, this is still to take a rather broad view of umbrellaness, one in which umbrellas serve as a category of interchangeable objects rather than a flock of individual specimens. Umbrellas were once carefully made objects, with great thought given to handle, post and fabric, and generations of craftsmanly expertise was embedded in each canopy and frame - confections of not inconsiderable price and value. So many of the umbrellas we know today are spat out of factories, perfect clones of one another, their construction riddled with shortcuts and cost-saving measures - functional objects foremost, hardly to be treasured, or engraved with the owner's name and number. It often seems that one owns not their umbrella but an umbrella, any old brolly left by a hapless relative, borrowed off a friend once (which friend having long been forgotten), filched from workplace lost property during an unexpected downpour - umbrellas which, as Will Self writes, are "never contracted for, only mysteriously acquired." It is difficult to imagine the same lackadaisicality adhering to the ownership of, say, handbags, coats or hats. 

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 "As Nietzsche's observation makes so clear, umbrellas are perhaps most fully felt in their absence. Moreover, as Derrida notes, "it is not only the umbrella that is recalled but also its having been forgotten.'"
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Even so, concepts of the umbrella as weapon, shelter, walking stick, could not exist without the individuals wielding them - shielding themselves, defending themselves, or foisting themselves violently upon others - which leads us to another understanding of the umbrella: that of personal space begetter, defender, delineator. For the umbrella, with its canopy carefully calibrated to cover the human form beneath it, can be seen as a symbol not only of personal space but of individuality. 

Early English understandings of the word 'umbrella' - the use of which significantly predated widespread use of the objects themselves - included an almost metaphysical sense of personhood. As English poet John Donne wrote in a letter to his friend Henry Goodyer in 1609: 

"We are so composed that if abundance or glory scorch and melt us, we have an earthly cave, our bodies, to go into by consideration and cool ourselves, and if we be frozen, and contracted with lower and dark fortunes, we have within us a torch, a soul, lighter and warmer than any without; we are therefore our own umbrella and our own suns."

Or consider this verse, inscribed on the memorial of a five-year-old boy who died in 1684 in Barnstaple, Devon: 

Blest was the prophet in his heavenly shade

But ah! How soon did his umbrella fade!

Like our frail bodys, which, being born of clay,

Spring in a night and wither in a day. 

Writer Robert Louis Stevenson, in a pert little essay whose title I have borrowed, spoke of the social codes inherent in various types of umbrellas (the "snobbery" implied by an ivory handle, the "decent and reputable" nature of a gingham brolly), and how one's choice of umbrella can betray the flaws in one's nature - or, indeed, be consciously employed to deceive others as to their true character: 

"May it not be said of the bearers of these inappropriate umbrellas that they go about the streets ‘with a lie in their right hand’?"

In his essay ‘Please to Leave Your Umbrella’, Charles Dickens too deftly sketched an understanding of umbrellas as repositories of our personality, morals, taste and judgment. In this essay Dickens describes a visit to Hampton Court Palace, where he is requested to leave his dripping umbrella in the cloakroom before viewing the artworks on display. After some time, Dickens notices that he has left not just his umbrella downstairs but, with it, the greater part of his personality, in deference to the institution he is visiting. The artworks he has been thoughtlessly admiring are not at all to his taste. "Please to put into your umbrella," he writes, indignantly, 

"… all your powers of comparison, all your experience, all your individual opinions. Please to accept with this ticket for your umbrella the individual opinions of some other personage… Be so good as to leave your eyes with your umbrellas, gentlemen, and to deliver up your private judgment with your walking-sticks…"

He recalls similar instances - at the Old Bailey, and at the House of Commons (where he must leave behind "the difference between black and white... enough to burst any umbrella") - and introduces an idea of humans only being themselves out of doors, free to inhabit the umbrella of their own taste, decency and judgment. 

But what of the times when there simply isn’t an umbrella to hand? As Nietzsche's observation makes so clear, umbrellas are perhaps most fully felt in their absence. Moreover, as Derrida notes, "it is not only the umbrella that is recalled but also its having been forgotten." Decades later, Will Self puts a postcapital spin on Derrida’s words: "this losing is itself unrecalled, so that what usually impinges is only the umbrella-shaped hole where one used to be." 

Accordingly, there are at least 80,000 umbrella-shaped holes opening in the smoggy air of London every year - for that is the number, according to writer Charlie Connolly, left annually on London's public transport system. The true sum of absences is, of course, much higher, this figure not taking into account those left behind in shops or schools, bars, parks and workplaces, the homes of friends and family. Nietzsche, giant of Western philosophy that he is, shows he is all too human when it comes to umbrella ownership. To those looking to find some great hidden meaning in his "I have forgotten my umbrella" Derrida sounds a wise note of caution: to do this, "one must have forgotten that it is a text that is in question, the remains of a text, indeed a forgotten text. An umbrella perhaps. That one no longer has in hand." It may well be that the profoundest truth of umbrellaness resides not in their form, function, liminality, or associations with the individual - but rather, in their remarkable propensity for disappearance, just when they are needed most.

 


Marion is a freelance writer based in London. Her first book, Brolliology: A History of the Umbrella in Life and Literature, was published by Melville House in November 2017. Her essays, reviews and features have appeared in the TLS, The Guardian, Overland and Books+Publishing, amongst others. She tweets @merrrrrrr.

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