Image Source: Metafilter.
Not far from my house, there is a big Victorian house going up for auction at the end of the month. The owner is an antiques dealer. The word is that an old lady lived in the house for decades. When she died, the dealer picked it up for a song. He renovated it, kitted it out like a museum, and is now selling the contents and property; and I guess, he is hoping to turn it over for a profit. I saw the property at the auctioneer's open house, and what got me thinking about antiques was the basement.
Image Source: House to Home.
The whole house is an antique, of course, dating from the late 19th century. The upper floors have been renovated with attention to historic detail, but the impression is shiny-new-new. The rooms are adorned with antiques - woodstoves, ceramics, furniture, paintings, statues, chandeliers, mirrors, books. Everything has been cleaned up and presented in ahistorical, sanitized glory. The house looks great. But these antiques have had the power of their temporal identities muted so as to be purely quaint and decorative. They are real antiques, but they might as well be faux antiques, replicas of things we know are old and therefore carry a certain ornamental cachet.
Image Source: Arid Preservation.
I'm not saying that people should ideally keep antiques in dank dungeons to 'keep them real.' But I noticed an unnerving contrast between the charmingly-preserved artifacts in the renovated overlay, where the past is safely dead or comatose, and the guts of the house, where the past is still alive.
The basement, while being swept clean and white-washed, is the real deal. It is unrenovated, the beams bear axe and adze marks, having been hand cut from virgin forest. It has low ceilings, the kind where taller people walk around ducked down. The stone walls are rough in a way so alien to modcon-endowed Millennial McMansions that they practically constitute a horror film set.
An unlit little room with a half-height doorway opens behind the furnace. This unlit small room has an old mirror standing against the far wall in the darkness. If you stand in front of the furnace, you can see through this curious rough doorway and make out your dim reflection shining back at you from the far wall of the adjoining small black room. I could just imagine the scene: it's the middle of January, forty below outside, three in the morning, the furnace suddenly stops for no reason and You Have to Go Downstairs and Investigate.
In a way, that was a metaphor for the whole house. In that furnace room, I, the modern person, was the interloper, the intruder. The house, despite its age, betrays a continuity that runs longer than a human lifetime. It reflects its new visitors back at them: we are the spirits passing through, while the house remains.
That message of a live past was incontrovertible. It could have new plaster put on it, but it could not be challenged. It was present in the layout of the house, the size of the rooms, in the bedroom closet doors that would not open (due to humidity), and in the barn in the back as well, with handmade square nails, standing near a quiet, overgrown orchard. Again, these things have continued from that time to this one, and as long as they are left intact, no amount of renovating, lawn-mowing and hedge-trimming can remove their silent testimonies.
This is the distinction between immortality and afterlife. The house and grounds are still alive. The antiques inside the house are relics, dead outside their times, with only a glimmer of a memory of what they once were. The house itself constitutes a continued historical reality. The antiques exist outside their original cultural and temporal contexts and only dimly echo those contexts.
This experience is more common, obviously, beyond North and South America, where an 'old' house dates from the 19th century (or at the most, the 16th century). Nevertheless, I have seen this contrast in Europe as well, where far older buildings are renovated and in daily use; but new coats of paint cannot conceal the old spirit of the structure. Historic renovation cuts a fine balance between recognizing the essence of a building, and forcing that past life into the perceived needs of livable space in the present.
It made me think that in the new Millennium, we are afraid of the past, to some degree. We like to keep it contained and controlled. We want the charm of things from the past, without the burdensome messages they bring. There is a brisk trade in fake antiques and many videos on Youtube on how to distress new pieces of furniture so that they will look antique. Or, real antiques are further distressed and given a false patina to give them a Shabby Chic look. Websites give advice on how to create the perfect faux antique paint finish and stir excitement about rustic decor. There is a lot of buzz on how to "update" actual antiques and make "them look fresh," that is, make them charming and non-threatening at the same time.
How old is this conflicting attraction to, and anxiety about, the past? The first Gothic haunted house novel, The Castle of Otranto, dates from 1764, the late-advent of the modern period. It seems that this period sparked an ever-growing obsession with novelty. Perhaps modern culture became dislocated from human continuity. Maybe the modern period also marked the beginning of the shift away from religious fears of heaven and hell, and projected those fears into the secular sphere, onto the mundane objects of daily life.
-The photos in this post are not from the actual property up for sale, but resemble it.