Writer in Residence · 09/28/2010

Artifact 19: Artifact 19

As the classical era drew to an end and the ancient city’s prosperity gave way to want and famine so too did its careful philosophy give way to ungoverned speculation. Salons which had hosted arguments on democracy and familial responsibility now presented disquisitions on the nearness of the world’s end and the soul damage caused by the fulfillment of carnal appetites. A tradition once ruled by academic decorum and intellectual exploration found itself canted toward occultism.

Like most artifacts dating from this period, Number 19 is difficult to place within any specific school of design or art. The artifact displays a face that may belong to a beast or to a man or to both. Franz Dupert, of the University of Iowa’s Department of Archaeology, has argued in lectures and in his first monograph that Artifact 19 is a small part of a larger sculpture intended to portray a narrative of the werewolf myth. Dupert refers, of course, to the myth of Traffetus, who slept among the hunting dogs of his beloved Pena in order to learn the way to her heart, and who, after much groveling in mud, grappling with beasts, and chewing of bones, found that he preferred the life of an animal to that of a man.

Dupert’s interpretation held sway with academia for nearly a generation, but the newer interpretation put forth by Elen Sergeva, the Ukrainian historian, has recently gained ground. Sergeva’s theory places Artifact 19 firmly within the wan and desperate light of the Classical era’s close.

Sergeva argues that the piece was crafted or at least owned by an adherent of the Plenary school of thought. Plenarists believed that the human soul was so full of potential that it was unfit to contain it, and that when taken together the combined souls of humanity filled the world with too much possibility to hold. Plenarists believed that when a person faced a grave decision (what they called a “two-minded” decision), that person’s mind would split the perceivable world into two or three or four new worlds, one in which each decision had been chosen and carried out.

Plenarists further believed that these separate realities multiplied and existed simultaneous and adjacent to each other and that the barriers between them were so thin and permeable that a person might find himself or herself freshly moved from his or her world into a new one only slightly unfamiliar. The popular Tale of Slo, a commonly cited Plenary myths, relates the story of a man who returns to his home from a long day’s field work to find his wife and child at table with a fatter and jollier version of himself, and who subsequently wanders the countryside looking for a way back to his own true house. For the Plenarists, the ultimate horror of the fable was not that one might find an interloper in one’s own house, but that one might oneself be that interloper.

It’s difficult to guess at how many Plenarists actually used them, but the record tells us that at least some adherents displayed totems at the doors to their homes as warnings against permutations of themselves wandered in from adjacent realities. The fullest accounts of these sculptures tell us they were meant not to scare a visitor with ferocity but to remind the visitor of the differences between the totem now looked upon and the one remembered displayed in front of his or her own door. The visitor would note that the color was subtler than recalled, or the mustache more delicately embellished, and would realize that he or she had fallen into a world unfamiliar and be off as quietly as possible. Elen Sergeva argues that Artifact 19 is a part of or most of one of these totems.

Whichever theory is correct—whether Dupert’s or Sergeva’s or one not yet formed—we can agree that Artifact 19 comes to us from a desperate time in which the failures of the Classical era were readily apparent and the splendors of the next were still out of sight.

Tim Dicks writes a flash piece everyday at timdicks.wordpress.com and blogs for uncannyvalleymag.com.

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posted by Amber Sparks