- PortalsCabinets of Curiosity, Reliquaries and Colonialism
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At the Maison Gai Saber, where I am trying to collect my thoughts [End Page 39] 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, the old stone houses with cellars and attics. Yesterday I worked in the garden with Francine, my hostess at this 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 bloodlines, 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. 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, twentieth-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 exist beneath the new structures. 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 where objects are not reduced to commodities bought and sold without any emotional, social or spiritual bonds. The mana that lives in an object once owned by someone is passed on to the recipient. As it is farther passed on, its power and value increase. This reminded me of the sense we have of powers inherent in old things and old places, and in the late offspring of old families, with their mingled lines of influence and geography, ethnicities and languages. The tragedy is that these braids of meaning can be cut off, diminished, when the objects, persons and places in question are used and abused in merely mercenary ways. Cut off from the circulating energy of community, history, nature and the lifeblood of heritage and exchange, they become sterile and lose their mana. Severed from the forces that made it, the [End Page 40] 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 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 that seem somehow to be calling to them. Even they are treasuring places and the objects and people who have either originated there or arrived via surprising routes—routes that are stories and heritages in themselves. These considerations compel us to reconsider modern-day prejudices against materiality and to work 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. The roots of such a time are still traceable, however, and we may uncover them and cultivate...