On Remembrance of Things Past
Updated: Mar 21, 2019
A curious child (perhaps in more ways than one), I often got into places that I was not meant to get into, and saw things that were not intended for my eyes. Once, in a small shed in the back yard of our house, I came upon a suitcase full of letters and various pieces of a child's clothing. Among the papers, I found a small envelope tied with a piece of pink ribbon. It had on it, in my mother's beautiful handwriting, the name Sally Anne. This was the name of an older sister, who had died in a tragic accident a few months before I was born. Tentatively opening it, I found a small lock of golden hair. That was all.
Curiosity is a topic close to home, and one I will come back to, but here I want to discuss something else – mementos, keepsakes and relics.
Pleasure is a transitory sensation. It is human nature to want to retain tangible reminders of pleasures, of loved ones, and of cherished places. Since the mid-19th century, photography has been one of the most popular means of retaining and re-experiencing the past. With the advent of mobile phone cameras, we have become overwhelmingly inundated with preserved images which no amount of good intentions can hope to put in order. Souvenirs are another way we can keep hold of the past. A plastic Eiffel Tower, a plaster of Michelangelo's David, a kangaroo key-chain or perhaps something more refined, like a crown of thorns or plastic bottle of Holy Water from Jerusalem; these are the bread and butter of thousands of shopkeepers or street vendors in great cities the world over. We buy these objects, but if truth be told, we rarely look at them again. And if we do, do they really remind us of our experiences? I think not. I think that the moment of purchase is generally the only moment when we value these things, just as the action of taking a photograph is often more meaningful than the subsequent possession of the photograph. It is the idea rather that the object, the hope that it will preserve the moment – a hope usually unfulfilled.
Photographs are comparatively new (in historical terms), but souvenirs are not. It is perhaps inappropriate to refer to the objects Moses kept in the Arc of the Covenant (the manna, Aaron's budded rod and the tablets of the covenant) as souvenirs - holy relics perhaps. Holy relics were particularly popular in the Middle Ages. The medieval world was hungry for objects of religious veneration, and in the Holy Land they were all around. Who could deny that a stone picked up on a street in Jerusalem did not carry holiness within its substance? You couldn't see it, but then you couldn't see that it was not there. A stone that Jesus might have stepped on… better still, a chip from his tomb: stones, bones, fragments of cloth: virtually any object could be regarded as a holy relics. And as they didn't come with a certificate of authenticity the door was wide open for deception. It has remained so. In his travel book, When the Going was Good, Evelyn Waugh described that on visiting Cana of Galilee, a little girl offered to sell him the authentic wine jars used by Jesus in the miracle of the wine. If they were too big, she told him, she had a smaller size indoors, and, yes, they were authentic too.