Academic journal article Arthuriana

Arthurian Things

Academic journal article Arthuriana

Arthurian Things

Article excerpt

It depends on what the meaning of the words 'is' is.

-Bill Clinton, during his 1998 grand jury testimony on the Monica Lewinsky affair

Phenomenology must also include the description of nonexistent objects, given that centaurs and unicorns can appear before my mind no less than masses of genuine granite.

-Graham Harman, on Husserl's Logical Investigations

My title suggests that there are 'Arthurian things.' Although some critics have suggested as much, there aren't any; in part, this is because we are faced with the wee problem of Arthur's historicity. I say in part because this inconvenience has not stopped anyone from labeling any number of imaginary, 'lost,' or 'disappeared' things as connected to Arthur or to figures associated with Arthur, such as Excalibur, Arthur's seal, Gawain's skull, Lancelot's sword, Craddoc's mantle, and, of course, the Grail. The 'materiality' of such things is (but is not merely) historical, textual, archival, and also temporal, locked away in an intangible past, but nevertheless able to be summoned before the mind.1

On the other hand, the Round Table-to be precise, a Round Table-is quite singular in its Arthurian thinginess. The one that I have 'in mind' lives solidly in the present (for the most part) in the Great Hall at Winchester: it has an existence outside of the archive as well as a history inside. The Winchester Round Table is, as it were, the first Arthurian 'souvenir,' for it was specifically constructed and designed to memorialize Arthur and celebrate the chivalric fantasies of Edward I and Edward III. In fact, if we rummage around in the realm of the souvenir, the memento, keepsake, token, trophy, fetish, and relic, we can identify a plethora of other epiphenomenal Arthurian things materializing in the present. For example, the tourist who visits Winchester, Caerleon, Glastonbury, Tintagel, and other sites connected to King Arthur and who then passes through the ubiquitous gift shop is confronted with an overwhelming array of Arthurian souvenir-things: cards, books, posters, maps, plastic swords, pens in the shape of swords, figures of knights, pens in the shape of knights, mugs, jewelry, stuffed animals (teddy bears, griffins, and dragons; see Figure 1), and other assorted geegaws, gimcracks, and knickknacks.2 While any thing that materializes a memory (actually, that anticipates retrieving a memory) can function as a souvenir-thing (the stone that I picked up at Merlin's Cave below Tintagel), the commercial souvenir (the dishcloth that I bought printed with a drawing of Excalibur) has a particular shiny pull. Our collusion with all things organizes our experience of the world both temporally and spatially: things beckon, are small wormholes connecting us to other things in other places and times, yet some things call more urgently than others. With this in mind, I'm reviving an obsolete and rare definition for souvenir: 'A slight trace or vestige of something' (OED). The power, I'd argue, of the gift-shop souvenir-thing-both endlessly withdrawing and vibrating in relation to other things, past, present, real, imaginary-inheres in what Jonathan Gil Harris calls polychronicity, the 'multiple traces of time embedded in things.'3 The souvenir 'palimpsests,' as Harris would say. Such a souvenir carries the vestiges of a past time, real or legendary; it furthermore lives in the moment-and the place-in which the tourist find herself; it buzzes in its own present while bearing the traces of its history of manufacture; and, finally, it resides in a future in which the tourist recollects the experience in tranquility.

The desire for objects intended to mediate memory-the desire to remove objects from their provenance, whether it is from a beach or a gift shop, and insert them into one's own habitat-is motivated by a variety of reasons, such as sheer acquisitiveness; a fondness for kitsch; proof, like a pilgrim's badge, that one has been there; and/or sentimentality. …

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