Friday, September 09, 2011


In the beginning of James Clifford’s chapter on collecting art and culture, he quotes a poem by James Fenton:  “ The Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.”  The Museum is one of those crammed, unsorted, jumbled places full of oddities and atrocities, the very opposite of an orderly, properly labeled, clean and well-lighted place.  In fact, probably much more like the places the collections came from.  He quotes the opening and then a later stanza:
As a historian of ideas or a sex-offender,
For the primitive art,
As a dusty semiologist, equipped to unravel
The seven components of that witch’s curse
Or the syntax of the mutilated teeth.  Go
in groups to giggle at curious finds.
But do not step into the kingdom of your promises
To yourself, like a child entering the forbidden
Woods of his lonely playtime.”
Clifford adds:  “Do not step into this tabooed zone ‘laid with the snares of privacy and fiction/ And the dangerous Third Wish’ a personal “forbidden woods” -- exotic, desired, savage and governed by the (paternal) law.”
So what is this “dangerous Third Wish”?  I think it is about identity and therefore must be dangerous two ways:  narcissism and anthropocentrism.  That is, first, losing the connection to people who are “other” because of preoccupation with one’s self, and, second, thinking that the world is about human beings.  If one collects Native American objects or practices as “curiosities,” even as aesthetic objects without connection to their makers, then the collection is empty.   Their human meaning is lost.  What remains is what you-the-collector admire or associate with them.  It’s easy to make the objects into child’s toys.
The other problem lies along the boundary between what is emotional (attachment, identification, love) and what is spiritual, some power quite beyond any human mind.  If one is collecting as an emotional enterprise, then what one finds is fair game for children’s play, for books and movies, for paintings and sculptures, even historical assumptions.  Many people are very much attached to what they know about American Indian cultures in just this way and it can be quite a majestic and moral motive, like maybe “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” or the Museum of the American Indian on the Washington Mall.  They aren’t “bad,” but they can be transgressive and they can cheapen important objects with imitations and misunderstanding.
When I was small, my parents went to the Pendleton Roundup and brought us each back a certain kind of Indian doll.  They just fit into a grownup’s hand and seemed to be an Indian wrapped up in a blanket with a realistic head at the top.  There are some sophisticated versions at  I took mine apart, expecting to see a body inside, but it was only stuffing.  They were realistic, amusing, nice for a child to hold, human, even thought-provoking.  This is what I mean by an emotional connection.
There is another dimension in some artifacts that is much older.  “Spiritual” is a weak word.  “God” is an ownership word.  Maybe “Mystery” will do.  What I’m trying to get to is the numinous, overwhelming, terrifying sense of existence, which can grip a person on a starry night, in the midst of a whiteout blizzard, on a bleached-dry desert, or an alpine peak screaming with wind.  I think this is the dimension of the Third Wish, the wish to be drawn into that strange existence beyond all emotion or familiarity where the great visionaries have felt hot/cold, falling/clasped, dazzled/unseeing, as they report to us when they have recovered -- if they ever return.  It is not a matter of death.  It is beyond either death or life.  Maybe Tillich’s Ground of Being.
Some indigenous cultures will speak of harmony and the yearning and necessity to stay in harmony.  They don’t mean anything trivial.  The ultimate harmony is to lose one’s identity, which is death except that if one has joined eternity, there is no death.  It is only terrifying here on this side, not after one has entered it.  
Not only do we seem to have diminished this experience into horror movies, but we seem unable to connect with the original power of the uncanny, even when presented with the gorgeous gyring of the cosmos in deep space images.  I think this is because of clutching our identity tightly, a narcissism, and because we have never let our imaginations reach for eternity and infinity.  We know they’re there, but like Calvin and Hobbs, we hurry back indoors.
Properly managed and if sensory connections to either the original referents or equivalents are found in the existing world, religious artifacts can be a way of putting aside the necessity of being merely “us,” a burden in our daily lives.  We look for it in sex or drugs or extreme sports or the invasion of other peoples, but the threshold is always the inner self as it interfaces with whatever is beyond human perception, which is a contradiction in itself.  
This is not unlike the attempt to conceptualize a god who is beyond human concepts and which always collapses into the narcissistic defense of the status quo or the destruction of all else in the name of human survival.  One must give oneself up in order to transcend oneself, a terrifying prospect.  What happens to the body at that point is an open question because it depends on the existence of the physical world, which may not have been there in the first place.  This is the concept of “dream.”
Hoarding objects, even for scientific study or to preserve their preciousness to many people, denies the reality of the Beyond.  There’s nothing “wrong” about this so long as one has no wish to go farther.  It will always require the settling of competing interests both within and without the originating group, and this can mean violence or it can mean laws that are unable to provide justice -- only order and peace.  But it is the senses that control the consciousness.

From 1,000fragrances, a daily blog by Octavian Coifan

With "Myrrhiad," Pierre Guillaume . . . goes to the roots of the 8th Art writing the new rituals of perfumery with a precious material found at the heart of Religion and which portrays the constant human desire to go beyond the senses. . . .
Myriad of years go, the 8th ART emerged from the earliest sacred rituals and Myrrh was one the ingredients which accompanied these first forms of religion and the endless human desire to reach the infinite.

This time, the highly talented perfumer who signed an impressive number of modern highly original and creative fragrances, is drawing an imaginary bridge across time and cultures. He links the most ancient ritual of myrrh, a sacred ingredient burnt in the first temples of humanity (and complementary to incense) with the Asian ritual of tea. If myrrh is a ritual of smoke and scent performed inside the coldness and darkness of stone temples in a "social" space accessible to very few, the tea is about taste and the hot vapors, a ritual of intimacy accessible to everyone. Outside (communion with the others and with the Gods) and Inside (the enclosed space of intimate thoughts in silence). . . .Pierre Guillaume is playing with the concepts of scent and taste in an absolutely astonishing way. He takes 2 major cultural references and twists each with the signs of the other. Myrrh becomes bitter and sweet like a cup of black tea with sugar. The tea becomes black, smoked, bitter and highly scented like the real smoke of myrrh. . . . collective memory and intimacy.
(This is the end of this phase of the series.)

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