souvenirs from an impossible trip

In Walter Benjamin’s short story, The Wall (c. 1932-34), the narrator is living in Spain when he sees a postcard of a wall that “swung through the landscape like a voice, like a hymn singing across the centuries of its duration.” As he decides to find the wall, he misunderstands its label (at first he assumes S stands for Saint but it’s actually S. for Sebastiano Vinez). He looks through old maps and considers other names that might be older names for the place. At the beginning of the story, the narrator talks about a windmill on a hill that he is saving to visit. As it turns out, an acquaintance led him to Windmill Hill where the wall from the postcard was. He had sought after what he was saving to visit in the first place.

Benjamin’s story has stuck with me over the years as I took polaroids, or instant postcards. And it was in the back of my mind at flea markets, where I’d come across old postcards from an era before my time and feel the irresistible urge to buy them. All the better if they had messages already written on the back. And so, postcard polaroids merged together in my mind. Souvenirs from an impossible trip. Like searching for the place romanticized in a postcard that is at once close and far like any photograph itself. Sending postcards from a time where I never was and polaroids of things that do not exist as shown.

Besides, even if we thought we actually caught the place visited in an image, John Prine reminds us in his song, Souvenirs, “Memories they can’t be boughten / They can’t be won at carnivals for free / Well it took me years / To get those souvenirs / And I don’t know how they slipped away from me.”

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