The weight of inheritance

Cultural pilgrimages give us access to the inaccessible

When we express our love for a piece of culture, we will often hoard vintage posters, hunt out first edition books, stack piles of vinyl and CDs, or seek original paintings in museums.

But some fans take their love further, transforming themselves from enthusiasts into devotees by visiting the sites their favourite artists and writers once graced.

Their ‘cultural pilgrimage’ manifests in different ways – for fans of The Beatles, it is a visit to Abbey Road, for fans of Oscar Wilde, it is kissing his grave in Paris with bright red lipstick. But the act of journeying, of actively seeking out a destination like a pilgrim, remains the same.

Jungian thinkers structure pilgrimages into three stages: the release from the conventions of home, the spiritual renewal at the destination, and the return journey in which the pilgrim leaves something of themselves behind and takes something of the site back with them.

It is an ethos of transfer, a movement in which one physically ends up at the same point but spiritually transcends one’s former self.

But in secular terms, the cultural pilgrims who pose in front of Abbey Road or kiss Oscar Wilde’s grave do not hope for some kind of life-altering shift in perspective, or even necessarily a new interpretation of Abbey Road or The Picture of Dorian Gray. Rather, it seems cultural pilgrims attempt to cling onto the vestiges these artists leave behind.

In the absence of ever being able to meet Oscar Wilde, standing at his grave is the next best thing, the closest they will ever get to the man himself, both physically and emotionally. A false sense of intimacy is cultivated, in which the pilgrim feels a familiarity that is necessarily one-sided.

This promise of intimacy or rebirth fits well with the idea of religious pilgrimage, as the objects in that case are supposedly endowed with a transcendental force; they become gateways to an otherwise inaccessible spiritual beyond.

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But for the cultural pilgrim, a grave is just a grave – there is no communing with a spiritual deity involved. It seems that our obsession with these objects and places is therefore rooted in the cult of the artist, rather than being an exercise in self-discovery.

This cult has proliferated through Western culture thanks to the iconography of languishing geniuses cultivated by the Romantics. Just as historically, pilgrimages drew people to sites and artifacts they believed were imbued with sacred or mystical power, we believe that the mere presence of an artist imbues a site with some mystic mark that is emotionally potent yet physically untraceable.

The artist has the ability to transform something as mundane as a zebra crossing or as common as a local pub – things that are not unique in themselves – into sites of devotion, pulling people from all over the world in a magnetic lurch.

This kind of thinking inscribes a ghostliness within these places, as cultural pilgrims enter a negotiation with a vestige, a reckoning with their own envisioning of an inaccessible past. But soon the cult of the artist expands into a cult of tradition. Objects of pilgrimage are, after all, only what they are because of their popularity. We love to replicate the image of The Beatles on Abbey Road and then let it fly through other people’s Facebook timelines and Instagram feeds.

Perhaps what the cultural pilgrim brings back from their destination, then, is not some kind of spiritual rebirth, but visual evidence of proximity to the iconic.

The cultural economy of the latter half of the twentieth century meant images such as the sleeve of Abbey Road proliferated throughout mass culture to no end, and with our tendency towards distributing images of ourselves on social media, engaging with these kind of traditions may merely signify a further participation within this economy.

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Putting on red lipstick and kissing Oscar Wilde’s grave is a bizarre act when stripped of the curtains of tradition surrounding it. To do so seems to say more about a desire to be part of a tradition, than it does about the way individuals choose to express affection for a dead artist.

By leaving our lipstick stains behind, we are trying to appropriate a larger moment in cultural history. It is not enough to want to be intimate with the artist – we want to become part of their legacy as well.

Sometimes being at Oxford feels like being a cultural pilgrim. In my first meeting with my tutor, she told me to feel “haunted’ by being here, to feel the weight of inheritance – the inheritance of a thousand-year history of intellectual distinction”– despite the enormous cultural chasm between Oxford at its conception and Oxford now. But perhaps that is what we look for when we turn ourselves into cultural pilgrims – being part of that haunting weight of an irretrievable, inaccessible past.