AN ENIGMATIC THING – James Paz

RESPONSE #1 – James Paz

Wooden Oracular Bust, Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

Wooden Oracular Bust, Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

I wanted the best of both worlds. I wanted to choose an object that had endured across a large expanse of time, one whose unyielding materiality had allowed it to survive the processes of aging. But I also yearned for a thing that conveyed a sense of life, of animacy, a thing whose talkativeness would fill in the gaps and silences between my present and its past. I settled on the wooden ancestor bust (or ‘oracular’ bust) from the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. The alternate names drew me towards the object initially. An ‘ancestor’ bust suggested something with the power to cross the divide between life and death. An ‘oracular’ bust hinted at an enigmatic thing that might speak… to humans, for humans, as a human?

I didn’t realise that I’d have another choice to make. Two wooden busts were presented to me: the same object, but rather different things. One had human facial features, an expression poised between eternal sleep and an awakening of consciousness; the other was anthropoid but featureless, as expressive as a blank page. Part of me resists choosing between the two of them. I’d like to keep them together as half-identical twins. They have the same function, or duty, to fulfil – as mediators between the living and the dead – and yet their contrasting forms reshape the way that we conceive of human being or being human. What does it mean to be awake or asleep, conscious or unconscious? How can we see and be seen, speak or be heard, without eyes or a mouth?

The nature of these hybrid human-things also reflects on my own role in the 100 Hours project. How will my object mould me as a speaking subject? How will it make me talk? In our first meeting Ludovic Coupaye charged us to discover ‘a hundred histories’ in one object. But the challenge is to write a hundred histories without depending on (or necessarily creating) a hoard of knowledge. I deliberately chose an artifact from a place and time I know very little about, but which nevertheless intrigues and allures me. Is it desirable or even ethical to stay suspended in a state of unknowing wonder? My initial response – again inspired by the first meeting – is to start with materiality, to grasp meaning through matter. As a literary scholar, I am used to reading with my eyes. Yet I was lucky enough to be able to touch the wooden ancestor busts. One was smaller, a little heavier; the other was taller, but lighter. Both were potentially portable, but I got the impression that the lighter one might have been more personal: was this why its features had been worn away? Perhaps someone, or a series of people, had rubbed or caressed its face over and over till there was nothing left but an anonymous stare. I felt, too, some small cracks in the wood and was reminded of the sacredness of these things, a sacredness broken across time. And so my curiosity turned to respect and then something like reverence.

One response to “AN ENIGMATIC THING – James Paz

  1. Interesting how both you and Emily have focused on cracks James. Perhaps there’s something we can all think about here about cracks and boundaries between or within our objects?

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