I have to laugh whenever I see this snowglobe of Sigmund Freud, which is on a shelf in my campus office. This came to me from my old friend from graduate school, Bill Hamilton, who picked it up during a trip to Vienna last year, when he visited the Sigmund Freud Museum among other things.
What an odd choice for a kitschy ball of faux-snow! The figure inside is hard to determine as Freud, but I like to imagine it is Freud wearing ski goggles. Or a character from Futurama.
A colleague once asked me if that was cocaine swirling around his head.
The snowglobe is hilarious, as all snowglobes are.
The other day I took the above photo because the look of it got me thinking about snowglobes themselves — balls of glass that swirl powder in a watery shell to create a three-dimensional snowfall scenario. It’s impossible not to think of Citizen Kane or childhood or giftshops. To me they seem to imply a moment “frozen in time” — much like a photograph — yet not still… in persistent motion. The snowfall effect, when it works correctly, and sustains a well-balanced drift over time, aligns the device with the “automaton.” Yet we must shake them to stir them to life — these are not robots with on-off switches.
Indeed, the snowglobe is unerringly physical in nature…seemingly alive, in that it is a globular, fragile vessel that contains liquid, despite its hard glass shell. It is fascinating to watch people make this odd gesture — the shaking of a snowball — and to see the change that momentarily comes across their features — the frustration or fear or desire on their faces. Some shake them violently. Some gently disturb the glass for fear of dropping it. Some swish them like brandy; others twist them upside down and up again with violent abandon. There is something going on there, some kind of wish fulfillment and dread, in that strange moment when they grasp and disturb the contents of the globe, followed by the look of hope in their eyes as they hold it up to the light.
I always want the snow to keep moving, so I never have to shake the globe again. But gravity always wins.
The snowglobe is always reminiscent of death until it is shaken into life. In this way it has the aura of the uncanny.
It is no wonder, then, that they are objects of kitsch commodity fetishism in popular culture. Every gift shop sells them, even when the objects in the globe have absolutely nothing to do with snow, winter, or white powder in any way. Their “liveliness” promises for a price to allow you to magically bring a memory back to life, through this fetish object that stands in for the memory. We just think of them as toys, but they are deceptively more like dreams. Nay, they are more akin to crystal balls than toys.
Thinking of all this, I went hunting for interesting snowglobes online. Check out the snowglobe artwork of Walter Martin & Paloma Muñoz, called “Travellers”. “Like fairy tales or dreams, the tiny tableaus work as psychological metaphors,” Ken Johnson wrote for the NY Times. “Specifically, a stage everyone is bound to enter when life has lost its warmth and promise, at which point finding a new way becomes desperately urgent.” The globes contain an un-home-like moment, destabilized. And they are morbidly hilarious, too.