Tuesday, September 15, 2009

this should post in the position in which it was originally written, many posts down the page. good.

This multi-part essay will never be completed. Leaving out the sections that follow from this (or that were supposed to follow from this), here is the untitled prologue and part one (which is sufficiently outrageous, I surmise, to make up for the absence of the remaining three parts):

“The classics can console. But not enough.”
—Derek Walcott, “Sea Grapes”

We can’t get rid of Greece and Rome, any more than we can get rid of the building of the Pyramids, the posting of Luther’s 95 Theses, or the construction of the Erie Canal. They are facts that had material and spiritual consequences, of which we are the inheritors.

But we can supplement them.

We can also re-dream our our relationship to them. Derek Walcott has produced, over the years, an immense, sophisticated literary re-imagining of what Greece and Rome might mean on an island such as St. Lucia where the benefits of “a sound colonial education” were overlaid on a place in which the very language spoken by the descendants of a slave population (and of their onetime masters, plus a few other strands of intermingled ethnic inheritance) reflects generations of European politics and of the wars of France and England.

We can’t truly get rid of our history, for it comes back to bite us even in our own tastes and our own pathological excesses. It is present in the distressingly seductive grandiloquence of Thomas Wolfe’s rhetorically Southern articulation of the theme: “…and our lives are haunted by a Georgia slattern because a London cutpurse went unhung.” It would be fun, albeit unproductive, to try to imagine Robert Lowell’s Puritan-haunted New England rhetoric inflecting the same theme. (Actually, we don’t have to imagine; we only need to find the correct quotation.)

Now we have, in Cathy Gere’s books The Tomb of Agamemnon and Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism, the tools to re-dream our relation to the classical inheritance—or a major thread to lead us through the labyrinth, anyway.

I have already written my own review essay of sorts about these books at http://joculum.livejournal.com/219287.html and will not elaborate here except to say that Americans and Europeans have viewed the origins of Greek civilization through the distorting lenses of nineteenth through twenty-first century history, just as the Renaissance viewed them through its own perspectival distortions. It doesn’t diminish the value of the Greek and Roman inheritance to realize just how much we have selectively re-invented and re-imagined them to meet our psychological and social needs in every generation, any more than it diminishes the inheritance of the Egyptians or the Mayans. It just gives us permission to bend and twist the template, and to continue the perhaps impossible quest for comprehending the Greeks’ and Romans’ self-understanding. (How could we understand them? We do not even understand ourselves.)

Since what reaches us from the past is always already impure and distorted, we are most true to our classical inheritance when we make it our own: digital and virtual, or solidly mashed up in a remix and graffitied over by the tides of contemporary history.

So I am overjoyed, personally, by the mix-and-match juxtaposition of the classical arch of Atlanta’s Millennium Gate with Atlanta’s quintessentially modernist Ikea, on a site formerly occupied by a major steel manufacturer. There is no better way to dream the myth onward for the twenty-first century than thus to embrace our contradictions and our paradoxes. The whimsical photo posted somewhere by the Millennium Gate Museum, showing the heroic structure framed by its distinctly downhome mailbox across the multi-lane street, sums up the problem, and/or the solution.

This is not, by the way, a “transgressive” reading. That worn-out option is already so late-antique twentieth century, and so bound up with a certain kind of geeky academic snideness that is as dead and over as is the short-lived postmodern era, a period style that lasted a couple of decades instead of the couple of centuries allotted to modernity.

Since we are no longer modern or postmodern, but something else entirely, we are free to re-create our history in the present moment, secure in the knowledge that six months or six minutes from now, some snarky twitterer will be tweeting chirpily about how ridiculous it is that anyone ever thought something like that.

So let’s go for it. Or whatever argot we ought to be using to express that concept in the autumn of 2009. No one will remember, or even notice the first time round. Or we can hope that most earnestly, anyway.

A Four Part Essay in Defense of Hybridity, Inheritance, and Multiple Heritages

Part One:

I vividly recall my na├»ve shock on my first visit to Germany in 1996 (or, more accurately, to what had been West Germany, or the Federal Republic proper—I had seen the formally four-power-Allied-occupied Berlin of 1989, including the sector that had served for forty years as the sort-of-disputed capital of the German Democratic Republic, and revisited the once and future capital thereafter, a few months after unification).

Just as Germany’s postwar political status ended up overlaid with long-lasting leftover anomalies, the historical buildings ended up as reconstituted anomalies—sometimes rebuilt exactly as they were even though scarcely one stone had remained intact.

Even more disconcerting was the realization that certain impressive Gothic public buildings were rebuilt versions of destroyed Wilhelmine-era historical revivals—a postwar replica of a nineteenth-century reinvention of medieval architecture. (The Thirty Years War had greatly diminished the number of surviving authentically medieval structures some centuries earlier.)

So I have a soft spot in my soul for the notion of giving a city the past that it should have had but didn’t, or of updating the past, or of reproducing the past it had once but has no longer.

And despite the occasional victory with such buildings as the Fox Theatre (itself a lovely amalgam of imaginary North African and Near Eastern histories derived from Masonic allegory), Atlanta is a city that has excelled at pulling down what passes for its heritage, then sometimes (only sometimes) regretting it.

But lately I have been more fascinated with the attempt, not just to blend the historical with the contemporary—the stairs and planters from the 1895 Exposition that are meshed beautifully with the 1985 Atlanta Botanical Garden—but to create reminders of a past that never existed, but that should have. The retro lampposts of Freedom Parkway, suggesting a past history but more or less contemporaneous with the 1996 Olympics, are just one example.

The Millennium Gate arch and its flanking statuary at Atlantic Station are a more spectacular example. Considered as purpose-built entranceways to an immense mixed-use development, they would seem absurd. Considered as reminders or replicas of the past that ought to have existed but never did for various historical reasons, they look splendidly appropriate.

They are an excellent alternate history in a city that has often seemed modeled on some never-filmed sequel to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. (Not for nothing did the late and much-missed Charles Huntley Nelson create an Afro-Futurist remix of Lang’s original film.)

The arch and its statuary are already en route to acquiring the patina that accumulates rapidly in an accelerated culture, as it essays to negate the change-oriented downside of that patina; in our day, wear and tear and vehicular pollution too often conspire with urban redevelopment not only to take the gloss off things, but to suggest that maybe it is time to tear them down. A once well-known example of ‘80s postmodernism is already gone, having failed to survive changing tastes, and an anonymous shopping district has replaced it. But intrinsic architectural quality has nothing to do with it: One of the city’s most distinguished and internationally recognized examples of 1980s architecture narrowly escaped demolition, or replication elsewhere as in a proposed compromise. (An early example of the work of I. M. Pei nearly suffered a similar fate, and Marcel Breuer's final architectural commission has likewise been proposed as a candidate for obliteration by the winds of change.)

So if the Millennium Gate’s insistence on the remembrance of history does no more than remind us that Scogin, Elam and Bray’s Buckhead Library is a key part of our recent historical inheritance, it will have done its job in keeping at bay the barbarians who build in styrofoam, instead of in stone, steel, and structurally solid polymers. Mack and Merrill design things worthy of the ages, but the things themselves sometimes get ripped out after a decade or two.

One might note that the Vestiges Project out of New Orleans chose to use the Buckhead Library as their base this October for their Atlanta segment. So we are making progress in terms of realizing that in our thoughtlessly throwaway society, the past we have to preserve may barely have become the past.

Now that it has a little age on it, the Millennium Gate demonstrates perfectly that our heritage is not the past that we falsely believe that we merely inherit, but rather the past that we re-interpret and re-imagine. (Witness the two architectural styles blended in the Gate, the reference to a Greek temple done in supremely Modernist glass architecture that perches atop the arch itself.)

A city is only as good as the past it makes up from the available materials. Or as the late Kenneth Burke used to tell his students, “Be careful how you talk about the world; it is like that.”

1 comment:

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