I recently returned from a educational trip to Rome and Greece with my students and those of colleagues. As I walked around the Plaka and every small town that we visited on our Classical tour, I saw endless shops with souvenirs: from cheap trinkets to pricey replicas and interpretative artistic renderings. All the students–and I–took hundreds of photos. In fact most of the time we viewed the ruins through the lens of a camera, be it a phone or fancy SLR.
On returning home our suitcases bulged with objects acquired along every stop of the way. And this got me thinking: have we replaced interior experiences and memories with exterior objects, things? As a culture we own more stuff than any previous generation in the entire history of the world. Museum visits always end–sometimes start–with a visit to the museum store. We start them young. Disney and Pixar movies are accompanied by merchandise, often before the movie is even released. What does this all mean, apart from enterprising Capitalism?
Have we replaced our memories with physical objects to record our lives? Photos rather than recall? Souvenirs rather than imagining walking through the ruins at Delfi, Olympia, Corinth? We seem not to trust the transformative and enveloping experience itself and want some physical trace to represent our travels, both near and far. We are our possessions, rather than our gathered thoughts, feelings, recollections. As Plato noted in the Symposium, we are entranced by beauty, lulled by the glow of shiny things. But we must also move beyond this level of simple understanding to a higher/deeper entrancement.
I spent one evening sitting on the pier in Nauplio watching the sun set behind the mountains, across the gulf. Every other minute I was compelled to take a picure and I watched every passerby do much the same. We could not but look at the beauty that radiated from the sunset through the clouds, illuminating the water and the small Venetian fort in the harbor. We humans long for beauty in a deep and irrevocable way that translates into desire– a pure, simply, passionate desire to own and to have that beauty.
But what are we really seeking here? Johann Gottfried Herder captured this best in his poem , Ein Traum:
Ein Traum, ein Traum ist unser Leben
Auf Erden hier;
Wie Schatten auf den Wogen schweben
Und schwinden wir
Und messen unsere trägen Schritte
Nach Raum und Zeit
Und sind, wir wissen´s nicht, in Mitte
We are indeed in the middle of eternity and the things we cling to will vanish. Only memory lives on.