Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Theory of Souvenirs

Souvenirs are surely as old as recreational travel: among medieval examples are clay water bottles or tin badges for those who had visited Santiago de Campostela; for those who made it all the way to Jerusalem: River Jordan water, models of the Holy Sepulchre, or, for the really big spenders, pieces of the True Cross. According to The Innocents Abroad Mark Twain’s party was partial to chipping off pieces of every monument they encountered in hopes of bringing a bit of the sublime to their own home parlors.

For every souvenir has a spiritual character, rising above a simple tchotchke primarily because of its associations. As assertively lowbrow as the Donald McGill cards on which Orwell wrote so well and as full of content, the souvenir is fully present only to the purchaser who “remembers.” (This can prove a handicap, as In the case of the sizable equine skull I came across in the middle of a Mexican field and hauled home, worried that customs agents would find the bits of dried flesh clinging to it to be inadmissible to my hygienic and vasty land. It took years after my return to find a means of passing the thing on without offending the alert hollows where once were eyes.)

The linked reminiscence is less in the case of the stack of museum post cards, though even these were purchased in the excitement of viewing the originals and deciding that I must take the image with me. The aura of the low-fire Tarahumara pot is more luminous when I recall buying it from a lady who lived in a cave with a front porch of the most casual stone construction. Once Patricia and I were given a ticket and resulting fine by the French police for hitchhiking before they returned us to the same spot where they had found us by the edge of the autoroute and wished us “Bon voyage!” The documents of this incident would surely be a bore without the story. In fact, this slip of paper should perhaps go – even the story is insufficient to redeem it.

On the other hand in a prominent spot over my fireplace hangs a rectangular piece of cloth in a West African palette: orange, blue, red, and black. A large head of ripe grain is surrounded by lines radiating in all directions. The fact that it is a piece of a shirt which I came upon in a roadside ditch in the Niger Delta of West Africa does not prevent me from regarding this image as revealing much the same profound principle as the “ear of corn” that Hippolytus said was the holy of holies for the Eleusinian Mysteries. Roadsides and crossroads in particular often in that hot and humid climate held offerings bearing people’s poignant wishes, pointing to the gap that defines desire.

My own first stage of souvenirs was preceded by an anticipatory period in which I was beguiled by the associative bouquet of other people’s souvenirs. An Eiffel Tower is a snow globe would have held little appeal for me, though I am told it was in the nineteenth century the most popular reminder of Europe. My taste ran more to a cancelled second-class ticket from the Métro or a plastic bag from Monoprix. A recently returned traveler might possess a precious pack of Turkish cigarettes, impressively cheap and foul. The stamps in passports were resonant, each with its own unique timbre. Before my first trip abroad, I saw once a great hunk of hashish with gold markings I was told was the tax stamp from the Indian state where it had been purchased.

But best of all were the stories. I recall a friend aglow with the memory of what he called “a plum of a job,” civilian supply clerk on a American base, where he could read Hegel in German all day long and then walk the cobbled streets of the Old World in the days when the dollar was strong. Another friend who had served in the Peace Corps in Ghana had a half hour riff on the “car parks” where one might get a seat in the highly competitive collective taxis. A third who had been set up and then busted for pot in Thailand then surprised the authorities when he not only failed to offer an immediate bribe,but also, after being convicted, he refused to pay the small fine, preferring to spend six weeks in jail where he became very popular teaching English to the other inmates. I heard stories of the territories popular in the hip Cook’s Tour of the day: Morocco, Ibiza, Amsterdam, Kathmandu.

With a backpack, a Swiss Army knife, and s few pairs of jeans we wandered around Europe and North Africa for much of 1970 and ’71. Our worldly possessions consisted of a few cardboard boxes, mostly books, art works, and papers, stored in a parent’s home. In part because we had so very little, we did buy things now and then. Being in foreign markets reminded me of first visiting Cost Plus, up by Fisherman’s Wharf in 1967. The store still exists, but I cannot say whether it fills the role it did forty-five years ago. The warehouse-like aisles (a novelty at the time) held an endless variety of cheapo goods from all over the world. Everyone whose living room I passed through seemed to have been there for Indian bedspreads, incense, paper lanterns, beaded curtains, Mexican drinking glasses, Spanish botas, and Thai teacups. Within a single shopping trip one could establish a recognizable style on a budget. Just as in thrift stores, the value of such purchases testified to one’s taste rather than one’s wealth.

So while traveling we gathered this and that to ornament our imagined apartment of the future. Every few months we sent a parcel in motion to the USA, always labeled “gift – value under $25” to avoid customs. Sent by the defunct category of sea mail, these boxes moved very slowly about the globe, taking as much as six months to arrive at their Midwestern destination. Several only made an appearance long after our return.

We were snobbish enough to consider a potato peeler from Paris to have a certain cachet, even if its French aura be invisible to others, and a sweater from a Paris shop was an extravagance, but one that could be savored. In Barcelona we bought an elaborate antique-style lamp and a hammered copper pitcher, but perhaps the wisest investment was a genuine (if imperfect) art nouveau candle-holder in the form of a flower. Our collection of carved wooden pipe-stems and clay bowls (sebsis and shkaufs) from Morocco have not been used or displayed, but they carry to the present minute the savor of our days in Mufis’ café and the Gout de Fes. We sent back ephemera as well: leaflets from the tourist offices of a dozen cities, receipts of various sorts, bits of windblown litter like an advertisement for a small traveling circus in Ibiza featuring el hombre electrico.

A few items were more substantial: on the wall outside my bedroom hangs an old Tunisian carpet. I know nothing of its provenance. In the spring of 1971 I saw it in a merchant’s stall of used goods in the medina of Tunis. We talked, had tea, yet could not agree on a price. On each of the four days Patricia and I stayed in the city, we returned to admire the piece and to bargain a bit more. Finally, we bought it, dearer to us for the memory of the recreation potential in commerce, though hardly dearer than a pizza and a half.

Our place acquired in time sufficient satisfying clutter that we decided that the truly tasteful traveler will avoid shopping for amusement and acquire only a very few items of high quality. In this category I place a new carpet of subdued palette bought in a Marrakech souk the evening before we returned home almost twenty-five years ago. I recall the mint tea, the unrolled carpets expanding from the front of the shop into the dusty lane, and I recall our companion, the musician Hassan Hakmoun, with whom we had visited a market in Ourika and hiked for miles to a cataract above Setti Fatma. When we bought the carpet, Hassan bought a small rug for his son which we carried back to New York and when we went to take it to him in Harlem I locked myself out of my car and Hassan had to jimmy the door with a long blade which he tucked in to his sleeve while strolling up his street. And in this way the forest of narratives branch and continue and link like neurons to make new data and connections and comparisons and the web of words connected to the carper is as tightly woven as the fabric itself, if one tried to tell all, there would be no end to the language until the story-teller or listener has had enough for the time and snips the thread at a convenient spot.

All the same, I sometimes doubted the aesthetics of souvenirs. Though we lived most of our lives on a fraction of what the government considers the poverty level, I knew that some people consider travel conspicuous consumption. Souvenirs might be a display potentially not of wealth alone, but of sophistication as well. Are they inevitably aggressive or at least ego-assertive? I recall uncomfortably reading an essay that compared people’s Guatemalan weavings and wooden Chiwara antelopes from Mali with a previous generation’s French tapestries and elephant leg ash trays. Magnates swollen with money like Vanderbilt and Hearst brought home chunks of palaces and chapels as proof positive of power and taste.

A new philosophical phase of souvenirs succeeded in which it seemed that one need buy nothing at all, that the real memories are mental and the most sublime approach to travel would be similar to the hiker’s creed “take nothing, leave nothing.” Abandoning the commitment to discernment inherent in the previous phase for its dialectical opposite, the traveler now proceeds on the premise that all objects properly regarded have the same associative value. Unfortunately, this assumption rather casts the motive for travel at all in doubt. This is surely the part of wisdom if only to remind the traveler that whatever object he seeks to hold will fall from his hand at last. But then life consists of distracting oneself from impending disaster, and I suspect that any aid we can utilize toward that end is worthwhile.

I settled in the end at last to a less monistic daily practice, picking up a trinket or two in a casual way, a number of them made as souvenirs,: a fine blanket of baby alpaca, a Huichol peyote bud yarn painting, a plastic laundry bag from a hotel in Chichicastenango. I once spent a week by the Ganges in Varanasi, hearing chants and flute tunes all night long and seeing the saddhus doing yoga and telling fortunes out the window. There were a half dozen shrines containing Shiva lingams within a hundred yards of our guesthouse. I thought of the Rev. William Ward whose 1815 book fixed early British attitudes about India to whom such figures were “too gross . . . to meet the public eye” and of Ramakrishna’s devotions which led Vivekananda to claim righteously that the lingam was by no means phallic. Even Christopher Isherwood felt obliged to argue in “Early Days in Dakshineswar” that the lingam and yoni are no more sexual than a Christian spire and font. We brought a small Shivalinga home with us, trusting that it was, indeed, sexual, and it took its collegial place not far from the Jesus night light, the red Haitian candles of male and female forms, and the Buda de Dinero good-luck money-attracting spray. A second lingam we sent to a friend who wrote back, “What a good little lemon squeezer!” (which would have made good sense to the Robert Johnson who sang the “Traveling Riverside Blues”).

A conventional European meal -- even an airline meal -- seemed a marvel when we flew out of Nigeria after eating nothing but food from the local market all year, yet I clearly do not wish wholly to leave that wet and sunny land entirely behind, because in my attic I have yet, though I rarely look at them, a monkey’s hand from the Benin City juju market and an enormous black beetle whose larvae grew in the fruit of palms and were eaten with relish by the locals and by us with a bit less enthusiasm. (Once our dignified Yoruba principal in his three piece British woolen suit was bedeviled by one of these monsters while trying to give a speech.) And we have as well a humble figure, carved by the local Master of Ughelli, a crude tortoise-like object which doubtless contains at least as much mana as the more elaborate objects vended in the foreign oil compounds.

And so, we all surround ourselves with the household gods that time has shown will serve us. We go through life carrying our memories behind, unable to reenter the gone moment or to leave it entirely. Like clothes long unworn at the back of the closet or a ten-year-old check register, be it ever so mundane and arbitrary, each souvenir signifies the ineluctable passage of time and the sweet affection that so tragically ties us to this world. Twain and Cooper both record the humorous usage by which Americans who had gone abroad were called hajjis, but surely there is something of pilgrimage to our peregrinations, no less when we muse at home as when we travel to far-away places.

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