My father taught me what Benjamin calls “the phantasmagoria of the flâneur: to read from faces the profession, the ancestry, the character” (1999, 429).
My father would compose detailed legends–it was a game–about a passerby we glimpsed in Moscow for no more than five seconds, situating them in the depths of time: his great grandfather was a peasant; imagine this person on a hill above the Dnepr River in the thirteenth century; he was a soldier; she must be a pharmacist.
It was great to read fleeting stories encoded in features; the city is a fascinating book with so many chapters.
The game included objects. At one point I came into possession of a silver ruble, a rare treasure, a precious coin–and my father, rubbing it in his fingers, and turning it and observing it from both sides, told me: “This coin has a history. It dwelled in a treasure chest of a Moscow beauty, and she bought a cheek rouge on it; then it tinkled in the wallet of the merchant; it was stolen, it was lost, and it was found; it made a long way to you.”
I lost the coin soon, and this loss, one of the first losses of which I was to have so many, is an item of my loss collection now, more precious than any material coin could ever be.
A loss is an event which opens an infinite anfilade to regret. A loss is an absence felt and experienced as absence giving no hope for return.
The Celts began making their own coins in the 200s b.c. when they received payment from Hellenistic kings who employed Celtic warriors as mercenaries. The king weighs 6.8 grams and is about 2cm in diameter.
♥ The Ancient Origin of the Heart-Shaped Valentine ♥
This very rare coin is a silver hemidrachm struck in Cyrene (modern Libya) around 500 to 480 BC. Both sides of the coin show the now extinct* heart-shaped silphium fruit. The silphium plant, a large relative of the fennel plant, was abundant and a lucrative cash crop in ancient Cyrene, which is why it appears as the symbol of the city on its coinage.
Since it allegedly went extinct, silphium is a bit mysterious to us. We do know that it was greatly prized for its medicinal and culinary properties. It was used as an herbal birth control method, thus forever associating the shape of its fruit with passionate love and thus, matters of the heart. Ancient writings also help tie silphium to sexuality and love. One such reference appears in Pausanias’ Description of Greece in a story of the Dioscuri staying at a house belonging to Phormion, a Spartan: “For it so happened that his maiden daughter was living in it. By the next day this maiden and all her girlish apparel had disappeared, and in the room were found images of the Dioscuri, a table, and silphium upon it.”
Pliny reported in his Natural History that the last known stalk of silphium found in Cyrene was given to the Emperor Nero “as a curiosity,” because it was nearly extinct by then.
*There is some debate about whether or not this plant is really extinct. You can read about that on the Silphium Wikipedia page.