This essay won the Jeffrey E. Smith Editor's Prize for Non-Fiction from The Missouri Review and will be published in its entirety in Spring, 2015.
Cabinets of Curiosity, Collections, Reliquaries, Colonialism, and the Complexity of Human Life
le souvenir de ces maisons s’est deposé dans mon
et court aux points cardinaux de mon corps
Il leva le bras. Une petite troupe de chevaliers
et d’assassins encercla le bourg comme une barrique
cerclée de fer
-Francine Y. Prevost
At the Maison Gai Saber, where I am trying to collect my thoughts about Schatzkammer, reliquaries, ornament, crime, and civilization and its discontents, all the matter has history: all of the earth, all the rocks, going back to the Paleolithic age, and the land, worked and harvested for centuries, the grape vines, the fig trees (which yield montagnes de figes), the old stone houses with cellars and attics. Yesterday I worked in the garden with Francine, my hostess at this special artists’ residency in the Loire valley of France, removing ten years of ground cover and vines from an area outside the pressoire (a house built by Francine’s father, a master carpenter, which is so called because of a beautiful gigantic old wooden cask-press for grapes sitting on its porch). While we worked we uncovered wild garlic and snails and small new prodding flowers. Every material thing here is bound or connected to the past via blood lines, via deep ruts in the fields, etchings on the surface of earth’s memory, that reach deep down under the soil to places we cannot see, but surely feel. Francine herself was born here, in this house, and her family goes back for generations. Thus the earth we were working was worked by her forefathers and foremothers, over and over again, hands like her hands in the same moist, rich dirt. In the Maison library (where other vines go back to other roots, bifurcating out over vast geographic areas and times to ancient Greece, medieval France, 20th Century German history and philosophy, Japanese courtly poetry, Arabian-Andalusian melodies), I picked up Civilization and Its Discontents, wherein Freud writes about the way our childhood selves are carried within our grown bodies, just as the ancient foundations of old cities may still somehow exist beneath the new structure. I also rediscovered Marcel Mauss’s wonderful book, The Gift, about ancient and primitive gift exchange, called the potlatch in some traditions, and about the ‘mana’ of objects, and a world wherein objects are not reduced to commodities bought and sold between strangers without any emotional, social, or spiritual bonds. The mana that lives in an object once owned by someone is passed on to the recipient. And as it is farther passed on, its power and value increases. This reminded me of the sense we have of the powers inherent in old things, and old places, and in the late offspring of old families, with their mingled lines of influence and geography, of ethnicities and languages. The tragedy is that these braids of meaning can be cut off, diminished, denigrated when the objects, persons, and places they form are used and abused in merely mercenary ways. When an object, a place, or a person is cut off from the circulating energy of community, history, nature, and the life blood of heritage and exchange, it becomes sterile and loses its mana. Severed from the forces that made it, the craftsperson who formed it, the animal and natural materials of which it was constructed, a relic becomes a mere thing, with no meaning.
A person, too, can become an object, when alienated from her surroundings, her history, and her roots, although occasional spiritual and physical journeys away from home are instructive and refreshing; and there seem to be some people—travelers and expatriates—who find their homes or perhaps their anti-selves in constant transition or in far-off lands. But even these wanderers are tracing lines of contact, walking paths and touching artifacts which seem somehow to be calling to them. Even they are treasuring places and the objects and people who have been either born or created there or which have arrived there via circuitous, surprising routes—routes which are stories and heritages in themselves. And a home or a land is robbed of its ancient magic insofar as its ancient trees, ancient houses, ancient foundations, ancient tales, myths, and songs are cut down and forgotten. These sorts of considerations compel us to reconsider certain modern-day prejudices against materiality and to work to rediscover old ways to understand why many of us continue to love objects no matter how implicated they may be in things we ostensibly don’t love.
It is so difficult to imagine a time when humans were not driven by merely economic ends (“Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers” as Wordsworth had it). But the roots of such a time are still traceable, and we may uncover them, reanimate them, and cultivate them today if we choose. But in another, more popular book on the gift, by Lewis Hyde, it is suggested that, since gift exchange is a complex and fraught relationship, often dangerous and messy, some modern people may actually prefer the commodification of objects and life because it gives them a sense of freedom from the group, from the commonality, the family, the tribe. Thus, the “free society” may be not so much about political freedoms as about the freedom of individual determination, the freedom to leave the group and fend for one’s self, the sense of anonymity and of not being beholden to anyone of capitalist commodity exchange. This explains why one may prefer a sterile cold hotel to the awkwardness of staying in a warm home with strangers, who may become friends. While cleaning up after dinner, Francine and I agree that this sort of anonymity does have its charms too, for a poet or artist who escapes for a while from everyone she knows to live in a foreign city, unwatched, unbound. And of course in our modern world, we often stray very far from our homes and our people, abandoning native languages, customs, and the obligations of kinship that go along with them. There are, of course, often good reasons why a person would want to be cut off from his family or his national heritage and culture, but such a separation can probably only be achieved by a truncating and repression of parts of ourselves, parts that it might be better to bring up to the surface in all their messy material complexity. At best, we adopt new families, learn new languages, invent new customs, putting down new roots, and creating and collecting new keepsakes; and at worst, we float amid shallow connections without identity, without meaningful possessions or mementos to hold us down, without a place to call home, without attachments.