It seems a strange place to start writing about the miniature, but I want to begin on the internet, because I found there, for a time, a thing I could hardly have conceived would have existed: a community of illness. I found there a space for grim jokes about vomiting on a stranger’s shoes, about pretending to understand when others talk about fry-up hangover breakfasts, for complaining about the poor quality of hospital food, about ridiculous dietetic terms such as ‘fun food’ for the kinds of things—like chocolate and cake—that cause us the most distress. I never expected to meet, however disembodiedly, so many people whose bodies are also bearing the brunt of a similar hunger.
An image circulates, from time to time, in this community of illness—virally, as it were—an ‘affirmation card’ mercifully lacking in butterflies, sunsets, dolphins or daisies. Hand-drawn, it begins with a question that seems simple but which nagged at me for weeks when I first saw it: Exactly why do we want to be smaller?
I’ve never been tall, I’ve never been large; I’ve always been distressed by the way my illness made me bony, made me tiny, made me small. But the question stayed with me, I realised, because I’ve gotten used to being small. I know now that there’s a part of me that can’t imagine being otherwise, that doesn’t want to see those changes, however uncomfortable and unsightly they may be, reversed. This part frightens me, and disgusts me too. This smallness, or this awful desire to remain small is, perhaps, one of the last strongholds of my illness. Because smallness, the miniature, has a profound power of its own, and perhaps this is its appeal: it is, after all, a power that is as complex and contradictory as that of hunger itself.
From the first glance, miniature objects unsettle our perception: because of their unusualness, because something is not real or right about them, we’re forced to look again. Like any discrepancy, especially any disparity or distortion of size, they stand out (like the proverbial, swollen sore thumb), they ‘shock us into attention’ as the novelist Steven Millhauser writes, describing his own fascination with miniature things.1 They force us to double-take: things that are too small arrest the everyday, upset our regular worlds, those landscapes and objects that we almost stop seeing the more comfortable we become in and beside them, the more often we move through them. Tiny things can bring us back to wonder, can bring us back to surprise, to a more complete, attentive engagement with the world. (I want to say: they bring us back to the poetic.)
But to be miniature, to be a smaller model of a naturally existing thing is to fall under this kind of attention, to become something unusual, not quite right, something somehow out of place. To be miniature is to be a strange source of this shock and wonder, of fascination and unease at once, because as much as our shrunken, tiny small bodies alarm the people who love us—as well as those we simply walk past—as much as they recoil from our sharpened shoulder blades and protruding joints, there’s a morbid kind of fascination, an abjection, that’s always there as well. I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve told me that they simply don’t know how I do it. I’ll never forget that double-take, that visible flinch, even as I know now that I do it too, that my own attention to too-small bodies is tinged at times with a terrible sadness and an even worse, shameful envy: things were so much simpler when I was that much smaller, when I barely knew that I was sick, wasn’t trying so hard to get better.
Miniatures, too-small things, are also always replicas, scale models; they do not exist except as a diagram of something else, or more precisely, as an exemplar of something bigger and less carefully crafted, less constructed. They are not real, not in and of themselves. A friend once referred to me, at my sickest, as ‘a shadow of my former self’, a thing, that is, less real because smaller, ghosted by the larger object my miniature self had been modelled on. (I sometimes think I’ve become hyper-real, because the original referent, that healthy, larger body, has been so long lost.)
To be miniature, then, is to have a different occupation of space, and especially of communal, public space. We disturb it, even as we occupy less of it. I think sometimes that the drive to hunger, the drive towards smallness, is about precisely this: we feel so uncertain, so anxious about our rightful space within the world that we try to take up as little of it as possible. It is a drive to disappear that can only ever succeed in making us more prominent, more visible, because it makes us as different and offensive on the outside as we so often feel we are at heart.
But the strangest thing about miniature objects is, I think, their craftedness, or careful construction, their unreality or unnaturalness that’s so utterly unsettling because they have to be so detailed and precise. There’s real skill, care and time involved in making miniatures—which became most popular as objects at the end of the nineteenth century, in the early years of the photograph, the beginning of the age of mechanical reproduction. Susan Stewart points out that some of the earliest miniatures were books, specifically Bibles, and that these were first produced almost as elaborate business cards, as evidence of the bookbinder’s skill.2 This is because, unlike a full-sized and functional, mechanically produced object, a miniature must be fastidiously and individually made, and the smaller the object is, the more precision is required in its construction. Any errors or faults in a miniature object take on a larger—because normal—scale.
The early nineteenth century was also the era of jewellery lockets and of eye-portraits—tiny commissioned paintings of a lover’s eye worn on a brooch hidden within the folds of clothes. These were miniatures created as tokens of memory or desire, worn close to the body, the scaled-down likeness of a lover contained and carried, kept metaphorically close at all times. By the Victorian era, barely three decades later, the first doll’s houses were becoming wildly fashionable, with sets of miniature furniture, minute but fully functional sash windows, four-poster beds with full sets of cushions and curtains, wardrobes that opened onto miniature lace dresses for the scaled-down human figures that might occupy the rooms.
Victorian doll’s houses were made-to-order, accurate representations of the true-sized houses that they would finally be installed in; they were an eerily realistic set stage or portrait of the possessions, environment and accoutrements (‘Honey, I shrunk the kids!’) of the people who commissioned them. There’s a strange kind of vanity at play here, but also an accountability: because they are so small, all of the objects can be seen at once, ordered and in place; because the parts are miniature, the whole can be perceived complete. This too is a by-product of craftedness: it is finite. We perceive miniature objects in their entirety, no detail is invisible or able to surprise us, there’s no part of them that’s hidden, or beyond our range or reach. We know their whole.
And it’s just this wholeness that Gaston Bachelard is referring to when he writes, in his meditation on the miniature, ‘the better I am at miniaturising the world, the better I possess it’,3 a sentence that stopped me in my tracks when I first read it. Because this, I think, is my experience of hunger—because it narrows the world so minutely and completely, because it causes such an intensity of focus in the brain, the world seems to shrink, just as the body does, and thus seems to come back under our command. It’s a false and contradictory kind of command, of course: the more control we try to exert over our eating and our food, the more our illness asserts itself and the less able we are to operate autonomously, to make choices uninformed by anxiety, by terror. We possess the world, perhaps, but are dispossessed of our own selves.
Yet this narrowing of focus, this ‘detail-orientated thinking’, to use the psychological term, has been the one by-product of hunger that I have struggled most with, as I’ve tried to re-find and redefine myself and my life without it. Detail has for so long been the stuff and substance of my poetry, that accrual of small, odd things, contradictory things, the things that undercut or illuminate the social world. It has always been detail that I’ve thought makes the worlds we write specific, poignant and, in essence, poetic. And it’s hard to acknowledge that my writing may very well have been based on nothing more than a cognitive pathology.
In hospital, this change to our brains was explained to us with handouts: Being good at focusing on details can be considered a strength and there are jobs which will particularly require this skill, for example, proofreading a document. At first I was relieved because I’m a terrible proofreader—though I’m embarrassingly aware now that there’s a delicious irony in rejecting this whole concept on the basis of one sentence.
But afterwards, for months, I was sure that if I lost this aspect of my hunger, I would lose my writing too, and I couldn’t contemplate how adrift I’d be without both anchors. Bachelard again: ‘To have experienced miniature sincerely detaches me from the surrounding world, and helps me resist dissolution of the surrounding landscape.’4
The scale of the world, even the scale of a single human life, is terrifying. We can’t conceive or perceive the world, much less our place within it; we can’t contain its contradictions and variations, its overwhelming possibilities and changeability. But with a small world, after all, a doll’s house–sized world, a miniature world, all of this changes. So too, perhaps, with our bodies: if they are small enough, or fraught enough to see or feel in their entirety, we can be sure that they exist and we can be certain of their borders—and by extension, we can know the selves that they carry with certainty. We’re no longer porous, no longer soluble, no longer contaminable; instead, we are safe, at last.
But possessing the miniature, I think, means more than just fully perceiving it, however powerful an experience that may be. We can hold miniatures in our hands. We can move and manipulate them; unlike their true-sized counterparts, we can physically, as well as metaphorically, grasp them, just like the Victorians did with their lockets and love tokens. Millhauser writes about this power of the miniature as ‘an attempt to reproduce the universe in graspable form … a desire to possess the world more completely, to banish the unknown and the unseen’.5 Melinda Alliker Rabb calls it a ‘renunciation of sensible dimensions by the acquisition of intelligible dimensions’.6 A miniature world is at our mercy, we are no longer at the mercy of the world. ‘We are teased out of the world of terror and death,’ writes Millhauser, ‘and under the enchantment of the miniature we are invited to become God.’7
But being small is not being God; being miniaturised is being seated at the opposite end of this equation. Even so, being the cause of this enchantment, rather than falling under its spell, is a strange and almost perverse power of its own, and this too has an allure. Even as hunger is a striving for control, for mastery over the world, for agency, our miniaturised bodies become things that can be grasped and moved and repositioned, things that can be held and controlled. I have friends who always raise me off my feet when they hug me, who cart me around on their shoulders when they’re horsing about (or less than sober); I have had lovers (usually short themselves) who’ve delighted in lifting me up and carrying me. It’s a kind of surrender, a very sensual one at that, and such surrender, such giving up or in or over can be an incredible relief.
I still want, sometimes, someone or something to take from me the burden of being myself, this thing perhaps that I could only bear, for so many years, through hunger. But by being small, I think, I can enact this physically. I can be, quite literally, transported.
I realised this recently, when, as a birthday present from a close friend, I went tandem sky-diving over a beach in Wollongong. Of course, the whole experience was one of handing over control: we waited, we were weighed, we were moved through the different staging areas in groups, piled onto a bus but not told where it was headed. Just before the small plane’s roller-door was raised, at something like 14,000 feet above the land, we were strapped up to the harnesses of our tandem-partners. Mine was a roguishly grinning, youngish man named Kip, who was close to two metres tall; he’d laughed when he’d come bounding out of the site office on the ground and noticed my scant height. In the air, he shouted instructions I could barely hear over the noise of the propellers, and when I failed to follow them correctly, he simply grabbed me around the middle, lifted me off the floor and dropped me into position on his lap, fastened our harnesses together, then ate a Fisherman’s Friend from his pocket as if it were the most natural thing in the world. My friend joked, ‘You look like you’re enjoying that,’ and the truth of it is that I was. I’ve never felt so safe, so fully and tightly held, so contained.
To move away from terror and death, to be teased out of their world: isn’t that the kind of consolation we all want? But miniature objects don’t just resist death because their visible boundaries and finite details make them knowable and graspable, but because their self-containment makes them still and out of time: the stillness of a miniature ‘emphasises the activity that is outside its borders’, writes Susan Stewart, ‘the miniature is a world of arrested time’.8 And this stillness, this timelessness is two-fold: miniature objects are functionless objects, they are decorations, they cannot move of their own accord. And they focus our attention—like hunger—because we have to narrow in, to concentrate on their small form, their even smaller details, in order to see them, and this concentration, at its most intense, makes the rest of the world fall away.
So the miniature is a different, perhaps more complete, occupation of time, as much as it is a different, because more tenuous, occupation of space. Time thickens, becomes larger, when we’re faced with the miniature. Stewart also writes about a University of Tennessee study, in which participants were asked to look at miniature houses at different scales, imagine themselves moving within them, and then indicate, by ringing a bell, when they thought thirty minutes had passed. The smaller the house they were concentrating on, attending to, the more quickly the participants perceived time to have passed; and more incredibly, the ratio of this time as they experienced it to real time corresponded almost exactly to the scale of the miniature house.
A hummingbird’s heart beats at up to 1200 beats per minute, and they rarely live for more than a year. A mouse, with a heart rate almost half as fast, 500 beats per minute, lives for twenty-four months, twice as long. An elephant has a lifespan of about eighty years, a heart rate of twenty-eight beats each minute. It is because of how much longer and denser time becomes in miniature that it might move us away from, forestall, somehow, that very terror and death.
But this desire to move away from death is another of the perversities of hunger, another of the strange contradictions that seem to be the mode in which anorexia always operates. It is a disease of fear, or bodily terror at times, yet it is the very things we fear that it brings closer: we fear that we’ve invisible, but our disease makes us smaller; we fear that we are powerless, yet our illness changes our ability to make rational decisions and moves so many activities and opportunities—eating in restaurants, travel, maintaining relationships, even holding down a job—out of our reach. We fear failure, yet our hunger makes it impossible to concentrate for long enough to achieve; we fear that we’re unlovable, and our disease makes us selfish, manipulative, flighty and unreasonable, makes us avoid social occasions or attend them anxiously and out-of-bodiedly. We fear death, and yet we let our bodies slowly destroy themselves, allow our hunger to turn us into skeletons with loose teeth and failing organs, shutting down, but somehow still walking around.
It’s a strange thing to remember now, but I’ve always loved tiny things. As a child, I had a collection of miniature bears, none more than 7.5 cm high—and I remember that measurement precisely—all of them fully jointed and most of them handmade, picked up in various craft shops in which my mother, a patchwork quilter, would spend what felt like hours (but how much thicker time is too when we are children). Years later I brought home a tiny, china tea-set, even the teapot smaller than my pinkie and a perfect, cast-metal Buddha just a couple of centimetres tall, from my first overseas holiday. I’ve collected buttons, thimbles, tiny seashells, none of these things useful, none of them valuable or important. This fascination with the miniature has been with me always, I realise now, and since long before I could count my own body as one such treasure.
Perhaps what miniature objects offer us, most overtly and entirely, are borders. We always know precisely where they begin and end, we always know their shape and where they fit and belong; all of these things it can be so hard to comprehend for our own selves and our own lives. And these borders are impermeable in a way that people aren’t, or can’t be, operating within the social, and in public: almost every critic of the miniature is quick to point out that Lilliput, Swift’s exemplary miniature world, is an island—as indeed no man can be. Smallness preserves, then, an interior, inviolable and precise, a private world that is steady and safe, however limited and constricted it may also be. Like hunger, it marks out something that we can control and own. The miniature is never messy—it is neat, it is trim and it is dear.
And so we become smaller. We take up less space and fewer resources, and we move beyond the reckoning of others, beyond their perception, beyond their common time. And the smaller we become, the further under the enchantment of the miniature we fall, the harder it is to come back. Giving up smallness, giving up containability, however false we know their promises to be, is the hardest part of coming back from hunger, from this disease—for me, and for so many others. It’s terrifying to imagine living with uncertainty in its stead, to imagine being borderless without dissolving. It is this fear that keeps me stuck, that keeps me circling within the orbit of my hunger. I don’t want to be a treasure, or a token, or a doll, but it’s still difficult to grasp how I might become human again and how I might live a full-sized life.
- Steven Millhauser, ‘The Fascination of the Miniature’, Grand Street, vol. 2, no. 4 (1983), p. 129.
- Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD, 1984, p. 39.
- Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press, Boston, Mass., 1964, p. 150.
- Bachelard, Poetics of Space, p. 161.
- Millhauser, ‘The Fascination’, p. 135.
- Melinda Alliker Rabb, ‘Johnson, Lilliput and Eighteenth-Century Miniature’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 46, no. 2 (2013), p. 290.
- Millhauser, ‘The Fascination’, p. 135.
- Stewart, On Longing, p. 67.