The Talismanic Aura of Authenticity (Part 1)

by Sally J.

in Big Ideas, Free Articles / Blog, The Talismanic Aura of Authenticity

Oh, my. I love that phrase so much I built a whole goshdarn series around it.

The Talismanic Aura of Authenticity – The Series

This is Part 1 in a series exploring why certain objects have a kind of power over us. It’s is the kind of power that transforms an ordinary object into a treasure worth keeping at any cost.

In this series, we’ll look at this issue from different perspectives. First off, we’re going to bask a little bit in the warm glow of this aura. I’m going to describe some of the treasures I’ve seen and encourage you to share your own favorites.

Later on in the series, we’ll take a good hard look at how this power can transform non-valuable objects (clutter, basically) into something so sticky it takes a lot of internal strength to get rid of it. In other words, sometimes we see a “talismanic aura” around objects that don’t really deserve it. We’ll also explore how one object can have different meanings to different people. Or even the same person at different points in time.

Two important things before we go any further.

“The talismanic aura of authenticity.” What on earth are you talking about?

Right-O! Quick definitions before we move on:

  • Talismanic = Having or belief that something has magic power. Hear it pronounced by clicking here.
  • Aura = A distinctive but intangible quality surrounding a person or thing. Often expressed as air, such as “an air of mystery” or “the house had a neglected air.” Hear it pronounced by clicking here.

Secondly, I have to make sure everyone knows that I stole this drop-dead gorgeous phrase from a comment on an earlier Practical Archivist post about historic reproductions. The commenter’s name is Trevira, and she had a bunch of interesting things to say. In fact, there are lots of great comments about what is and what is not authentic. You can go skim it right now if you want, I’ll still be here when you come back, I promise.

There is power in authenticity (Lewis & Clark Map)

I know this is true because I have experienced it myself. There is a “you-are-there” power that is palpable, that you can actually feel.

When I worked at the Library of Congress, I was part of a group that got behind the scenes tours of each division. While visiting the Maps division, I got to see a map carried by the Lewis & Clark expedition. It was encased in mylar, so I could get rrrrreally close without risking any damage.

What’s the first thing you do when you see a map of your corner of the world? Well, I don’t know about you but I always look for where I live. So I lean in real close to get a good look at Wisconsin — and yes I know Lewis & Clark didn’t travel through Wisconsin, and I know it wasn’t called Wisconsin in 1803… but the map they carried included it. My corner of the world. Now known as Wisconsin.

So far it’s interesting, but not anything to write home about, really. Then I see it.

There’s a small “X” written by hand on the printed map. I realize immediately that someone has marked Portage, Wisconsin. Nowadays it’s a sleepy town (pop. 9,827) in a county where that kind of size makes you the biggest city in the county. Back in 1803, it was the shortest dry distance between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. I’ll let the City of Portage tell the story:

The historical distinction of Portage lies in its unique geographical location between the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers.  Here, the two rivers, one flowing north to the St. Lawrence, the other south to the Mississippi, are separated by a narrow neck of land over which, for two centuries, Indians, missionaries, trappers, traders, adventurers and settlers traveling the waterway had to portage their canoes and heavy packs from one stream to another.  The settlement which grew here because of the resulting traffic was first knows as “Wau-wau-onah”, Winnebago for “carry on the shoulder”.  During the French occupation, it was simply “le portage” (from porter: to carry).  This was eventually anglicized to Portage.

Back to Lewis and Clark. Even though they didn’t travel through Wisconsin, the location of Portage was important enough to hand annotate one of the maps they carried on their expedition. That’s when I started feeling a little dizzy. I felt a connection to the distant past, even though normally it felt like a foreign country I would never have a chance to visit.

Now it’s time to share your favorite story about an object that gave you the shivers…in a good way. Or an item that makes you feel like it someone you love is with you, even though they are far away.

{ 4 comments }

Sally J. March 26, 2010 at 7:44 am

Oh, Vickie — I felt like I was right there with you! I even had goosebumps followed by that (now familiar) swoon-y feeling.

Your comment does a fantastic job highlighting the difference between the copy and the original. You can get useful information from either, and thank goodness for that.

But that talismanic aura of authenticity takes the experience to a whole new level when you interact with *THE* copy. The one touched by _______ (fill in the blank for your own story).

Thank you so much for sharing this marvelous story. This week has been almost unbearably stressful and your shared remembrances and celebrations are cheering me up very much. Hooray!

benotforgot March 25, 2010 at 4:19 pm

I have been on this earth closer to six decades than five … and I have been asking questions about my family history for most of that time … but it was just ten years ago when I first “met” (i.e., found out about) our Mahala (my 3rd great-grandma) …

That was also when I was informed that, during the years 1860-1866, Mahala had a stepson / son-in-law who recorded the daily happenings of his life in a journal … births, deaths, marriages, illnesses, going fishing, making a loom, riding a horse, building a fence, hunting chinquipins, etc., etc., etc. … and that this journal now had a permanent home at the Center for American History on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin …

I was able to get a copy of the journal at that time … and read it and researched it and studied it … and have learned more about the day-to-life of my family than I could have ever hoped to know … but it was just within the past few weeks that I first laid eyes … and hands … on the original 150-year-old treasure itself …

As I carefully turned the pages of that book … with an entry for almost every single day for almost seven years … and containing day-to-day tidbits from the very lives of my kith ‘n kin … I knew the one single page I wanted to view … and that was the day my 2nd great-grandpa married my 2nd great-grandma … as I touched that page, I had a definite awareness of the fact that I was touching an actual 150-year-old piece of paper … that was penned by hands … that touched the hands … of MY Sam and Nellie …

“Thursday, July11th 1861. To day I am engaged as salesman in the store with pretty active trade. Be it remembered & known that Samuel H. Sharp & Miss Mary Alexandrien Lamier, were united together in the bonds of wedlock, & I rather expect at night there was some very sharp shooting took place, this however is only a surmise. Capt. Wrigley & Ed. Jones came in from their camp to attend said wedding, where all passed off pleasantly & agreeably to all in attendance. weather clear & warm.”

Sally J. March 25, 2010 at 3:32 pm

Monica, your comment is both beautiful and heartwarming. You described a kind of “talismanic aura” that can make grief a little easier to live with by making us feel close to someone we have lost.

My grandma Esther had a huge collection of Robert McDonald pulp mysteries in the garage. I wish I had kept a few after she died, but I was only 18 at the time and didn’t know much about much.

On the other hand, I have a lovely soft yellow sweater she knit for me that I can’t bear to get rid of even though I will never wear it. Yellow is soooo not my color. But when I see that bit of yellow peeking out from under something else in the drawer, it cheers me to think of Esther and how she would knit at Dodgers games…while keeping score.

Do you have a sentimental object that makes you feel closer to someone? Share your story by leaving a comment…

Monica March 24, 2010 at 9:39 pm

My dear father passed away nearly 6 years ago, but it was only recently that my mother was emotionally able to let anyone help her sort through his belongings. Mom had to downsize and had to give up many of the items she and my father had collected in their 35 years together, including their library… 95% of which were mom’s books. Most of their books had to be either sold or given away, but two boxes of books went home with me — a complete matching set of Zane Grey hardback novels that my father had purchased in the 60′s.

My dad loved these books, and I remember how the red and white matching set always had a special place in my parents’ library. Knowing that my dad had treasured the books and had read every one of them, I couldn’t bring myself to sell them or give them away. So, I boxed them up and took them home with me. They sat neglected in my back hallway for months.

One day, when I finally got tired of tripping over boxes, I opened one up and pulled out some of the books. I flipped through a few of them and discovered — much to my surprise — that my father had made notations on the flyleaf of each one. In each book, he had written the date he had finished reading it, and he also signed his initials. He had read some of the books numerous times.

Seeing dad’s handwriting and the dates he had read the books sort of made me feel as if I had barged in… like I intruded on a private connection between the man and his beloved stories. Even so, it was very comforting to know the date that dad had last enjoyed each story and had held them in his kind hands.

So now when I miss my father, I get one of his books out. I have not read any of the books… I can’t bring myself to do that yet. But it is amazing to me how simply holding one of his books in my hands makes me feel like he is with me… and how the pain of missing him is slightly dulled by the sweet nearness of his memory.

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