Pittsburgh author Ed Simon examines guitars, footballs, and other important objects in Relic | Pittsburgh City Paper

Pittsburgh author Ed Simon examines guitars, footballs, and other important objects in Relic

click to enlarge Pittsburgh author Ed Simon examines guitars, footballs, and other important objects in Relic
Photo: Courtesy of Ed Simon
Relic author Ed Simon
An Elvis Presley guitar displayed at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is no different than any guitar from that era. This is according to Ed Simon, who explores the meaning of relics in a new book. 

“The only thing that makes it important is that Elvis once touched it,” Simon tells Pittsburgh City Paper, writing in Relic that “any sports hall of fame is, in a literal sense, not much different than going to Dick’s Sporting Goods. A football is a football is a football. Except it’s not of course, at least not if we’re privy to a sense of the holy.”

The underlying premise of Relic — part of Object Lessons, which Bloomsbury Publishing describes as a “series of short, beautifully designed books about the hidden lives of ordinary things” — developed while Simon was writing it.

“I don’t always know what my arguments are going to be until I’ve actually written the thing,” he says.

What emerged during the research and writing of Relic was a concept the Pittsburgh author deployed throughout the book — to not only explain what a relic is, but the tendency across cultures to endow normal objects with significance beyond their literal importance.

“I think it's very easy for people who are not maybe from a religious background to sort of look skeptically at that kind of practice,” Simon says of a concept he calls “relic logic.” He adds, “but one of the things that I argue is that this tendency towards relic logic exists in all kinds of different realms that are oftentimes considered secular.”

A launch for Relic will take place on Thu., Jan. 11 at the Bloomfield-based White Whale Bookstore, where Simon will discuss the book with Elise Ryan, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh English department. 

While the mere idea of a relic may seem superficial, the objects that acquire importance are not. In Relic, Simon examines various objects that have acquired a patina of sacredness or gravitas, from the Holy Face of Manoppello in Italy that’s reputed to show the face of Christ, to the football caught by the late Pittsburgh Steeler Franco Harris now displayed at the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum in the Heinz History Center.

“Because of the existence of the mundane, prosaic world, relics can act as a conduit to something that is more important or bigger than us,” Simon says. “In a religious context we might call that the sacred. We might call it something else if we’re talking about art — authenticity or the sublime in different categories. But I absolutely think it’s a way of making prosaic reality important, meaningful. I think the key word is meaningful.”

While relics related to sports, the arts, or politics need provenance to have value, that’s not necessarily the case with religious items. Sometimes, even duplicate items retain a spiritual resonance. In Relic, Simon writes that there are 18 sites that claim to possess the Holy Prepuce, “the sliver of flesh circumcised from the infant Jesus’ penis, and thus, after Christ’s ascent into Heaven, the only enduring physical manifestation of God on earth, and which appropriately looks like a wrinkled and withered flesh-colored Eucharistic wafer.”

“By definition, there’s a contradiction there, and people in the Middle Ages were aware of that,” Simon says. “The object itself can be less important sometimes than the collective cultural elevation of it being important … Provenance is kind of secondary.”

click to enlarge Pittsburgh author Ed Simon examines guitars, footballs, and other important objects in Relic (2)
Photo: Courtesy of Ed Simon
Relic book cover
Simon notes that he used local sites as examples because of his “vociferous Pittsburgh-hood.” But he also thinks that one can look anywhere and find relic logic at work.

“Pittsburgh might be a better place in some ways for finding those kinds of connections because you have things like St. Anthony’s, which claims to have the second-largest number of Catholic relics in the world outside of the Vatican,” he says.

But the idea of what constitutes a relic can be profound and transcend a mere collection of items. Citing a Tablet Magazine article,  Simon writes about the Chevra Kadisha, a Jewish society that oversaw the burial of the victims gunned down in the 2018 Tree of Life massacre.

Simon calls the Chevra Kadisha’s efforts “a consummate enactment of relic logic, a demonstration of how honoring what is holy of the body is to honor what is good in the soul.”

“If our embodiment is the source of our ethics, it must be born from an awareness that human hands can kill, but that they can also gather the remains of strangers as an act of love,” Simon writes. “Whether or not there is a God has no relationship to if we are to be good; for that ‘we have our sisters and brothers’ is justification enough. If you fear that there is a hell, it is in the space where man has enacted such violence on his fellow suffering humans. If you pray that there is a heaven, it is in the place where suffering humans work, hand in hand, to rebuild that world again.”
Ed Simon discussing Relic with Elise Ryan. 7-8 p.m. Thu., Jan. 11. White Whale Bookstore. 4754 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield. Free. RSVP required. Livestream available. whitewhalebookstore.com/events

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