By Jacob Austin,
The Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas is hosting a traveling exhibit called Lives of the Gods: Divinity in Maya Art. One of the items on display is a conch shell trumpet. It sits alone, under halogen bulb, in a sterile glass box. The plaque and the voice on the audio tour recording reports that the Maya considered such objects to be ensouled. It has an entrancing presence, sad yet powerful, like many of the artifacts on display. Though they are revered pieces, as they must be to have been included in the exhibit, something feels amiss.
The pieces are displayed in the second building of the museum. The permanent exhibits are free and showcase a range of works including many pieces from that small class of artists who have attained that rare status of household name, meaning this pricier, much more niche exhibit attracts a smaller crowd.
The rooms are dimly lit and sparsely populated. Each piece is given a large buffer of space; there are sections of stone wall cut out of temples standing ten feet tall and weighing a dozen or more tons, and there are palm-sized figurines carefully carved in jade. There are stone sculptures of sacrifice victims as well as statues in the likeness of a whole range of gods, but it was the conch shell trumpet located in the second room of the exhibit that continued to draw me back.
It is a large shell, but still small enough to fit within a neat glass cube, probably 2x2x2, give or take, sitting atop a pillar. One can observe every angle of the shell by walking around the pillar. Had one never seen a shell or did not know how commonly the sea spat out her gifts, the shape itself would appear museum-worthy even without the visible etchings or ethnographic context.
Poet Paul Valery, in his book Sea Shells, writes that “a sea shell emanates from a mollusk. To emanate strikes me as the only term close enough to the truth since its proper meaning is: to exude. A grotto emanates stalactites; a mollusk emanates its shell” (65).
The queen conch is a species of sea mollusk famous for her shell which today can be found in beachside souvenir shops the world wide. She grows slowly: born as a tiny, larval thing, the snail burrows into the sand where it stays, metamorphosing into a tiny version of its adult form which will unfurl, loosening a spiral that will expand for four years and then spend another twenty thickening, composite layers alloying season after season.
Living within the whorl, this softest of creatures imprints its body upon the hidden interior, sanding it to a pink, enamel-smooth surface, twisting away from the world in its spiral chamber. In this it is like the soul itself, that irreducible core that remains even after the acid wash of death upon which it returns to the commonwealth of all things. The soul makes hardly an appearance in this life. It dreams, and in this dreaming it exudes a second soul, what might be called the operational soul, Spirit, or Self. This is simply an accumulation built up around that hard stone. The soul emanates a Self, the living, thinking spirit that has opinions and feelings and desires. It is the Self that is at the wheel, though the Self, of course, cannot survive death. Caught between an emanation from within, and the limitations exerted by material conditions without, the Self is made, like the conch shell, both armored and beautiful. Valery writes of the dual consciousness of the conch, living both within his shell and in the world:
Here we are tempted to credit [the mollusk] with a genius of the first order, for he must confront two utterly different realities accordingly as he closets himself in laborious, concentrated aloofness to coordinate the efforts of his mantle, or as he ventures out into the vast world and explores it, his eyes groping, his feelers questioning, his firm foot with its broad viscous sole supporting the majestic traveler and his sanctuary, rocking them to and fro. How is he to combine, under a single set of principles and laws, the two kinds of consciousness, the two forms of space and time, the two geometries, and the two systems of mechanics with which these two modes of existence and experience alternately confront him? (95-96).
And so it is for us all: interior and exterior, mollusk and shell, soul and self, sleep and waking. There is something incomplete about visiting an art museum, some sense that one should be doing something more. This, perhaps, has to do with a blurring of these two utterly different realities, for it is a Hercules-in-Hades experience to walk amongst masterpieces. All of one’s dayworld strengths have no power in the nightworld of art. Sylvia Plath broaches the subject in her poem, The Ghost’s Leavetaking, writing of the moment of falling asleep as “At this joint between two worlds and two entirely Incompatible modes of time, the raw material Of our meat-and-potato thoughts assumes the nimbus Of ambrosial revelation”.
That about sums up the feeling of incompleteness which is essentially correct, for the physical visitation is only the beginning. Time will work to unfurl these meat-and-potato thoughts, alchemizing experience into ambrosial revelation somewhere down in the unknown subconscious.
Based on the size of the shell, the particular conch who became this trumpet lived for decades, grazing on seagrass and algae in her underwater home before finally passing under unknown circumstances after which the shell washed ashore or was found in the shallows off present day Guatemala before being carried to the coastal city-state in the golden days of this still young empire where it was transformed.
The Mayan beachcomber who plucked this emanation from the sands then etched with obsidian blade scenes, described by the museum’s audio tour, of “the lunar Maize God, seated on a pillow, and a solar deity, Juun Pu’W, seen…with large black sores, holding a serpent in one arm”. These etchings were then eternalized with red pigment derived from cinnabar, and a place of honor was made for the shell within their society:
Conch shell trumpets like this were used in war and in spiritual practice by warriors returning from a hunt. Maya considered it, and objects like it, to be alive. ‘They have souls of their own, they have existence of their own…There is an encryption in the conch that tells us the name of the conch…It tells us it was the trumpet of someone. This conch has the name of an owner, but it also has the name of the trumpet itself.’
Mary Shelly’s master work is, in part, the tale of the end of such a relationship with the nonhuman. She tells of the rise of Anthropos, that modern soul-denying god of fully rational Scientism. Like Dr. Frankenstein, the Maya artists worked to enliven their creations, but unlike old Victor, they lived in a socio-religious network able to accommodate these newly ensouled beings. Whereas the trumpet was given a place of honor, Frankenstein’s monster is thrust into a world where he is rejected as an abomination for asserting his interiority. As such, his plights give voice to all manner of beings denied their own soul.
Now, hypothetically granting soul to something so eloquently spoken as Frankenstein’s creation might be easy enough for a modern reader to allow for, especially if the word soul is given some wiggle room, but to extend such interiority to a sea mollusk, not to mention inanimate objects, is a whole other leap. Take any number of completely disposable objects so mind-numbingly numerous today as example: the thin plastic wrapping around a sleeve of peanut butter crackers, comes to mind. The plastic is the thinnest veneer possible, calculatedly so, the least amount of material necessary to hold the product. Once opened, it is nothing. It becomes trash. Shorn in half and smeared with peanut butter residue. And this is to have a soul? Surely one cannot, in good faith, extend ensoulment to a piece of trash in any way beyond an interesting thought experiment, or as an eccentric affectation, the crowning jewel in a learned sensitivity. If one were to try, what would that look like in reality? Becoming a hoarder in order to give each piece of plastic its own place of honor?
The shell stuck with me after the museum visit, but as the idea of ensouled objects continued to unfurl in my mind, this problem became a sticking point I struggled to resolve, but then I came across a line from Marx, in his commentary on commodities. Writing of a table, he states that it is an obvious thing that humans change the forms of materials found in nature in such ways as to make them useful, but “as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness…it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will”.
There it was. It had been my own human ego clouding my vision. Panpsychism does not demand we play make believe that household objects come alive when we are not looking, a la Toy Story or Beauty and the Beast. Far from such anthropomorphizing of the world, which diminishes not only humanity’s own special attributes, but also the special attributes of everything else, panpsychism requires only that we accept everything has its own interior existence. A table’s brain is wooden, not flesh, but a brain nonetheless, and that is even more wonderful than if it were to be yet another replica of ourselves, for how much more varied it makes the world.
It seems, then, that the vision of the World as waiting with an I-have-no-mouth-and-I- must-scream desperation for humanity to re-endow its soul is false. The disenchanted world is yet another one of Anthropos’ tricks. Soul simply is. In fields as varied as marine biology, fiction, poetry, and even Marxist economics, Soul bursts forth. What are the implications of that? Living such a question is what co-host of the Weird Studies podcast, Phil Ford, refers to as panpsychism with teeth:
It’s all very well to be philosophically panpsychist, but I kind of don’t care if it’s just an interesting idea for someone. I am always interested in the…cash value of an idea which is, like, how does it change the way you live your life? Okay, you’re a panpsychist; are you going to now respond to trees, rocks, mountains, and indeed artworks differently? Or are you going to go along still thinking your basically modern ideas of a dead and mindless universe whose sole-possessor of intelligence is you—Oh! aren’t you lucky?
Consider Billy: previously known as The Idol of Nightmares, he is “the most active and communicative item” in the Traveling Museum of the Paranormal & Occult, of which he has “become the defacto mascot”. Billy is a carved wooden idol who was discovered wrapped in a burlap sack beneath a home in Dayton, Ohio. How Billy got there is unknown, but those who found him believed the idol to be cursed, reporting “terrible nightmares, anomalous activity, and feelings of dread”. They donated the idol to Greg and Dana Newkirk’s traveling museum of haunted objects, and even these curators reported experiencing activity ranging from “technological malfunctions to phenomena consistent with poltergeist hauntings”. Beyond that, dozens of museum visitors reported having strange dreams and camera malfunctions upon visiting the so-called Idol of Nightmares.
“All this weird stuff started happening around Billy because we didn’t know what he was,” the Newkirks told Conner Habib when they featured as guests on his podcast, Against Everyone With Conner Habib. The Newkirks began trying to communicate with Billy via EVP, Electronic Voice Phenomenon, a technique used among ghost hunters and parapsychologists in which sounds found on electronic recordings are interpreted as the voices of spirits. At first, they received nothing more than “guttural screams”, but through continued work they eventually began receiving full sentences, and before long the intelligence, as the Newkirks define it, began appearing in Greg’s dreams, “delivering messages, and even presenting plans for mysterious devices and methods presumably used to contact the dead”.
Billy, it was revealed after further research, is a Nkisi Nkondi, or a Power Figure, composed of wood and ivory. It is thought he was carved sometime around the end of the seventeenth or beginning of the eighteenth century in the central Congo region by the Kongo people. While missionaries and colonizers have been destroying these “festish items” as evidence of sorcery and heathenism for centuries, there has remained a steady stream of them entering Europe as far back as the fifteenth century, mostly as objects of curiosity and fascination. How this particular Figure wound up under a house in Dayton, Ohio is unknown, but, after several centuries of mistreatment, it seems he has fallen back into good hands.
“I think of them as an intelligence…there is some kind of communication,” Dana tells Habib. Thinking of Billy as such has altered the way the Newkirks interact with the Figure. Visitors to their museum have begun spontaneously leaving gifts for the idol, and he is said to have mellowed out into a rather benevolent presence these days, far different from the terror who earned him the sobriquet, Idol of Nightmares.
Perhaps the soul of a peanut butter cracker wrapper will remain an inaccessible mystery because it requires some form of active communication to draw out that second soul, the Spirit as we earlier referred to it, or Self. While soul is latent in everything, the Spirit must be percolated from within, and can be further imbued through attention, respect, worship, attentive use, or, indeed, fear. When this ends suddenly and something once charged with a lifetime of respect or even worship becomes merely a source of curiosity, it might grow mean, a source of radiation rather than warmth; a wooden Power Figure becomes The Idol of Nightmares, a holy conch trumpet becomes a dampening sadness, but dead gods have a knack for returning if only there is a little faith. Just look at Billy.
The conch shell trumpet does not sound mightily, nothing at all like the familiar baritone of the brass, trumpet-faced God of Abrahamic monotheisms. It is a shrill, thin cry, rather haunting, a sound better suited for the jungle, or a weary emanation from the sea herself. What lost name does this trumpet wear and in what form will she resurrect as the air fills again with this mournful song?
Jacob Austin is a Texas-based essayist and fiction writer. His work has appeared in Popmatters, The Holon Project, and elsewhere. It is collected at jacobottoaustin.com.
Fisheries, NOAA. “Queen Conch.” NOAA, 20 Mar. 2023, www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/queen-conch.
Habib, Conner, et al. “Dana & Greg Newkirk or People Who Haunt Their Own Houses.” Against Everyone With Conner Habib, episode 46, 2019.
Harris, Shawnya L, and Peri Klemm. “Power Figure (Nkisi Nkondi), Kongo Peoples.” Smarthistory, smarthistory.org/nkisi-nkondi-kongo-people/. Accessed 25 May 2023.
Marx, Karl, et al. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Vintage Books, 1977.
Newkirk, Dana, and Greg Newkirk. “The Idol of Nightmares [Billy].” Traveling Museum of the Paranormal & Occult, paramuseum.com/pieces/idol-nightmares-billy/. Accessed 25 May 2023.
“Ouija Boards and Cursed Artworks.” Weird Studies, created by Phil Ford, and J F Martel, 19 Apr. 2023.
Plath, Sylvia. “The Ghost’s Leavetaking.” Poeticous, 11 May 2019, www.poeticous.com/sylvia-plath/the-ghosts-leavetaking.
Valéry, Paul. Sea Shells. Beacon Press, 1998.