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« In Which We Are Tantalized By The Ancient World »



Recently I traced the gentle curve of a 1,800 year-old spine. It lay pondering the bed of a marble box lying yet unchipped at the bottom of a cavern. “Death, and resurrection,” shared the tour guide in holy accents. “This is the message of the catacombs.” When you are in your twenties the lunchbox you toted to elementary school seems particularly illustrious. In general, the more time something has seen, the less you are worthy of it.

An ancient column is wiser than any man. By virtue of its marble, it testifies to both our temporality and immortality. When it crumbles – unattached to wall or arch or foundation – it readily betrays its age. Yet in unstained purity, its ornaments speak in undead languages of the things it has seen. Any pilgrim heart will find peace in these stones.

Ruins carry mystery because they are incomplete. We can only guess at the embrace of the Venus de Milo’s arms, and we consider our speculation time well spent. But this nostalgia, which we have long believed to be another country easily accessed by our most rapid and precise instruments, is in fact a fabrication. A utopia. We have never, in fact, been to the past that we think we remember.

With any stubborn secret (such as the ones stones keep) comes an air of mysticism, almost religious. We attribute to silence a far greater power than it possesses, simply and ironically because we have lost the power to keep silent. Whatever is rare becomes precious. When the rarity is intangible, we worship it, claim it as our highest good, entomb it, mourn for it, and resurrect it. Another tangible scarcity we might make into a relic, a symbol of the things we cannot touch.

Quickly enshrined are the oldest, crustiest things. Skeletons, gaudy jewelry, chalices made to contain substances we no longer sip. Bread, and wine. The occasional black and white photograph. I treasure a vinyl record now, but my children will most likely seal away primitive mp3 players. Livejournal accounts. Of course, the relics you most sanctify are the ones you were able to visit in the nursing-home stage of their existence: cassette tapes, floppy disks, VCRs. Forget about them; they knew 90 minutes, nothing more. Gently whispering parental guidance, they suggested that seeing a fake reality is worse than imagining a real past. Stones speak, and break, bluntly.

Somewhere in Turkey, all that remains of the temple to Artemis is an uneven pile of rocks in a rangy field, atop of which a stork has made his nest. That sight, and one of Shelley’s only good poems, managed to instill within me a Pascalian vacuum for a few years.

Taking root, as I do, in the digital world, I cannot call my experiences outside of it anything other than ‘relics’. Their tangibility compensates for the vacuum in cyberspace, allowing me to have faith in the world beyond. I baptize a sleepy huddle of under-caffeinated Chicagoans in the morning train with pixelated tunes, sprinkled from earbuds blooming white from my ears. And the angel said, the body is no longer here.

My perfect lover cannot be a conquest – he is not new earth, covered in bare green shoots of possibility; he is the vessel in which I explore new worlds. He is the means of faith, his overarching body a product of that strange transformation by which there is flesh, and blood, and sweat where there were once bread and wine. The curtain tore in two, from top to bottom.

Your body, a nightly prayer.

Rome might very well be the greatest city in which to forget yourself and your chronology, if you wish to do so. If you can ignore the cries of discount leather and paperweight Coliseums, you will catch a glimpse of how the past rests in sedimentary deposits, some heavier than others, some of a deep rich color, some nearly erased into the background. I have a tendency to isolate history into pockets: Antiquity happened, and then much later, in a brand new world, the Middle Ages. With the Renaissance came again a new dawn, a new mentality. But each age came like a layer of dust upon the last! Kings and peasants also looked at these columns! They also marveled, and were certainly also nostalgic.

Traffic lights, food trucks, and postcards seem brutish in the shadow of such beauty. Ruins, which comprise an important section of the old city, render cathedral angels vulgar in their angular severity. What is it about the roundness of amphitheatres that appeals to the streamlined eye? You can weep at the unfinished structures; imagine their whole shadows at noon, nibbling at oily triangles that were mozzarella sandwiches.

Generally, place – the sturdy, steady geography of it – is considered important for two reasons: primarily, if a person visits it for the first time and finds it similar or foreign to the other places in his or her memory; or more uncommonly, if a geological phenomenon occurs in or around it, significant enough that it might ravage the minds, bodies, or devices of the people inhabiting or observing it. But the world has a memory of its own. It has wounds and wrinkles. Sometimes it keeps our monuments, and sometimes it swallows them, so that we forget.

Is the Earth a relic in the vacuum?

Marble forgives; it doesn’t show blood. It is incredibly cold, but it will not forget. Although clean, like a useless hard drive, it stores songs and words in its grooves. Crucified on wood, buried behind marble. I wonder about plastic, about how it is mostly only present to preserve things longer than they should be around, how it smells bad in the fire.

The ancients burned down libraries regularly. You would think that they would have wanted to preserve a trace – even of cultures repugnant to them! – but they didn’t. How can it be believed that we are better off than they are in knowledge or morality, when the truth is that we have very little idea? That stone civilizations failed to endure has not discouraged us from uploading our minds into the clouds.

Kara VanderBijl is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. You can find her website here. She twitters here. She last wrote in these pages about the spirit animal. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

Photographs by the author.

"Keep Your Head Up" - Andy Grammer (mp3)

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"Lunatic" - Andy Grammer (mp3)

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Reader Comments (5)

This was absolutely beautiful. Thanks for sharing.
January 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRachel
this is incredible. thanks.
January 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTea
Amazing as always, Kara.
January 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBobo
I enjoy reading your articles. I always learn a lot from you, thanks.
February 28, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterjoann
thanks for your post.
March 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAsri Akbar

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