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Sixty kilometres or so south of Toulouse is the Ariège, an area rich in natural beauty, as one approaches both the Mediterranean and the Pyrénées. The hillsides, scoured by rivers, open into dramatic cave systems, and at the Mas d’Azil the caves have given up some of the earliest-discovered evidence of human habitation. In the village of Le Mas d’Azil, the Museum of Prehistory has on exhibit the most interesting artefacts from twenty centuries of ancient humanity.
Here too, perhaps inspired by the presence of all this prehistory, one can visit the Affabuloscope, l’Espace d’Art Métahistorique, a truly unique museum, and surely one of the universe’s highest concentrations of the madcap. Located in a reclaimed industrial space of 1500sqm, the Affabuloscope is dedicated to the exploration of metahistory, which it defines as “a manner of reinventing history, rewriting the past, to add to the past that which never was, what forgot to be, what could have been, not only with words but also with material, forms, movement.” This is the heart of “affabulatory expression”, and is the brainchild of Claudius de Cap Blanc, born in 1953 (as he puts it, “in the same year that Stalin did humanity the honour of retiring from the terrestrial scene”). Utilizing to the full the three elements necessary to realize such a project – “imagination, an atelier, and to get up early” - M. de Cap Blanc has put together an a-fabulous collection of inventions, histories, philosophical diatribes, and utterly skewed takes on conventional life, past and present, that is not only worth a detour to see, but is itself a major deviation from the reality that we think we know. As one exhibit, entitled “Dual History” puts it: “Existence is Dual, or It isn’t.”
The main ingredient, however, is humour, and very much along the lines of Gary Larson’s revered The Far Side. The Hall of Machines: Technology in the Service of Life and Dreams, is a collection of 411 pieces constructed of wood, plastic, metal, and whatever is lying around, each with its own (meta-)history; for example, the 17th century Righter of Wrongs, used by Anglo-Saxon clergy on Sundays to right the wrongs committed during the week; the Smile Prosthesis, worn at bedtime to be able the next morning to present the smile of your choice (8 different smiles available, including the Immense Smile, a.k.a. The Banana); the Extractor of Quintessence, enabling one to convert into a liquid the real meaning of blurry philosophical ideas. Sartre is rendered syrupy but opaque; Nietzsche becomes runny but lumpy and with an acidic residue.
The History of the Pankous is another exhibit, an “ethno-affabulation” with 83 original (and comical) artefacts from this legendary people: 9 semi-nomadic tribes of 200 members each, hunter-gatherers who annually wandered in an unchanging ellipse 360 km in circumference around Mt Corona, and who disappeared as a direct result of contact with civilization; the last Pankou died in 1948. Their concept of Duality apparently resulted from exchanges with the Chinese Taoist Tang Dynasty, 618-907 A.D. A brilliant spoof on Ethnic Anthropology, or something.
In the section entitled “Ontological Stomach-Rumblings and Other Pretexts” the philosopher/comedian comes up with this corker: “Ever since Man invented Death, he has devoted himself to its Negation. Without this vital occupation the substance of Life would be without content, direction, or any possibility of transcendence.” Thankfully he goes on to illustrate with some hilarious inventions and histories, including that of Dunce R. Crazy, itinerant clergyman from 1741 Banbury.
Several of the museum’s exhibitions concern themselves with arch fantasies on anatomical topics perhaps not suitable for a family-style-villa-agency-e-newsletter, but still uproarious. The Affabuloscope is open all year round except Tuesdays, from 2pm to 7pm, entrance €5 with reductions for groups. There is a shop with many of the instruments featured in the museum on sale, each one a unique hand-made piece, signed and with a certificate of authenticity – surely there’s a joke in there somewhere. The website features a witty biography of M. de Cap Blanc, and is terribly amusing – but unfortunately for the moment only in French.