Books and Arts

On The Making Of A Durable World

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Looking up at the towering, massive, early twentieth-century skyscraper that is the Municipal Building, I saw the names of my beloved city carved in Roman letters in a continuous line in blocks of stone: NEW AMSTERDAM MDCXXVI / MANAHATTA / NEW YORK MDCLXIV. Manahatta--what a beautiful name, I thought, so much more lyrical than New Amsterdam or New York or our present-day Manhattan, a name so lyrical that Whitman had written a lovely ode to it:

    I was asking for something specific
    and perfect for my city;
    Whereupon lo! upsprang the
    aboriginal name.
    Now I see what there is in a name,
    a word, liquid, sane, unruly,
    musical, self-sufficient,
    I see that the word of my city is
    that word from of old ...

 

From this dreamy invocation follows a Whitmanesque catalogue of all the daily activities enlivening the rivers of this port town with its "tides swift and ample, well-loved by me," and of all the daily activities enlivening the streets of this commercial center--"trottoirs throng'd, vehicles, Broadway, the women, the shops and shows"--delightful detail of everyday life piled upon delightful detail, ending in an ecstatic outburst of civic pride:

    City of hurried and sparkling waters! city of spires and masts!
    City nested in bays! my city!

 

Looking around me--it was the middle of the day in the dead of winter--I felt a pleasing shock of recognition. Downtown was no longer Whitman's world of church spires and ship masts, but it retained an unmistakable Whitmanesque energy. It was lunch hour, so the streets were filled with office workers, attorneys, people on jury duty, tourists, food vendors, street cleaners, book sellers, and hawkers, all of whom were now occupying with me the same place that Whitman had loved so well, a place that was now an exuberant jumble of municipal, state, and federal buildings, sometimes in the shape of a steel and glass box, other times, in the shape of a neo-classical temple, a soaring skyscraper, a neo-gothic cathedral. It was a bit overwhelming so I decided to walk over to the river. The first thing I saw were jagged ice floes drifting slowly downstream, and with that unexpected sight, I heard these words of Whitman's:
    The winter snows, the sleigh bells, the broken ice in the river,
    passing along up or down with the flood-tide or ebb-tide ...

 

There was comfort in this. What had started out as a dreaded trip to the Municipal Building to settle a housing problem became a pleasant ramble in lower Manhattan with Whitman as my guide. And by seeing and feeling the same things he saw and felt, even though more than a century and a half separated us, I, a historian much given over to bouts of melancholy, experienced our world as if, at least for a fleeting moment, it were continuous with Whitman's.

Though a few of Whitman's poems are dear to me, he is not one of my favorite writers, so I am always surprised when his lines return to me, as they did when I saw the word Manahatta--"City of hurried and sparkling waters! City of spires and masts! City nested in bays! My city!"--carved in stone on the Municipal Building. Why, I wondered, did certain of his poems touch me so deeply? Thinking about Whitman, nineteenth-century travel writers came to my mind, and how the best of them have a kind of faith that the sights they are describing will endure after they are gone and thus their guidebooks read like notes to those not yet born but who will one day visit the same beloved sights. In particular, I found myself thinking of Henry James and his Italian Hours. As I made my way home with an icy wind at my back, my mind began to fill with images of Rome in the late spring.

I thought of the time, about ten years ago, that my husband and I visited the Egyptian pyramid (the pyramid of Caius Cestius) at the Gate of Saint Paul. Going to Rome had not been part of our original plan so we had not brought a guidebook with us. Our itinerary instead was shaped by seeking out those glorious ancient monuments that we knew so intimately from having spent hours absorbing Piranesi's sublime "Views of Rome." We found our destination easily enough, for "Piramide" was the name of a metro stop. But when we arrived before the object that we had so longed to see, it looked nothing like the pyramid of our imagination. The actual pyramid, like so many antiquities in Rome, had been stripped bare of both the silvery marks of time and the luxurious layers of vegetation that had figured so large in Piranesi. And while it towered over a nearby stand of trees, it had little of the romance or monumentality of the Piranesi. Instead, this scaled-down Egyptian pyramid stood glistening white and forlorn amid the traffic and fumes of modern-day Rome.

Even when we viewed the crumbling brown walls of ancient Rome against which the sterile marble walls of the pyramid abutted--a structure called the Gate of Saint Paul, which, in truth, looked like a medieval fortress--and tried to place ourselves back in that historical moment, the pyramid still looked out of place. Trying to imagine the glory that was Rome returned me to somber thoughts about now-vanished cities meant for eternity, and so I was glad when we decided to take leave of it. As we walked away, we immediately and quite by accident came upon the so-called Protestant Cemetery, literally under the pyramid's shadow, a place for which we had no mental picture, since our guide, Piranesi, had not included it in his book of engravings.

The first thing we saw as we passed through the cemetery's grey walls were groupings of black cats posed in play among the tombstones, their appearance resembling nothing so much as primitive sculpture. We were so taken aback by the image that my husband left the cemetery to buy some film. Even now I can remember the morbid thoughts that visited me as I walked alone down the narrow, uneven, grassy paths made damp and shady by cypress and pine trees, pausing from time to time to examine a sculpture or read an inscription. Despite all the energy of modern Rome, the whole time we were there I was overcome by the sheer number of broken columns solemnly laid out like so many corpses awaiting identification by relatives. But it was in this serene place, with its strangely intoxicating air of jasmine, roses, honeysuckle, cats, and moldy fallen leaves and flowers, that the diffuse feeling of death that is everywhere in the architecture of Rome was made tangible and specific, for as I read heartbreaking epitaph after heartbreaking epitaph, I found myself in the presence of actual men and women who had lived and died: the tombstone of Keats (d. 1821) without his name--"Here lies One/Whose Name was writ in Water"; the tombstone of Shelley (d. 1822)--"Nothing of him that doth fade/But doth suffer a sea-change/Into something rich and strange"; the tombstone of Gramsci (d. 1937), with nothing but his name and dates.

As I read the touching epitaphs of the less famous friends of Rome, whether of the Academy of Rome, of the Red Cross, or the woman whose daughter--"her only daughter, her second self," as the inscription put it--raised a small section of the cemetery wall to commemorate her mother's love of the city, all the tears that I had been unwittingly holding back for Rome were now upon my cheeks. I, of course, knew that life was fragile and short, but it hit me afresh and with terrible immediacy, standing there among the English gravestones in the shadow of the ancient pyramid and gate named after St. Paul, who, a pamphlet from the cemetery noted, "on his last wandering [when] passing through this gate, can't have failed to look at the Pyramid, which was erected in the year 16 B.C."

When we returned to our hotel early that evening, I took out James's Italian Hours to see if he had anything to say about the disturbing sights we had taken in that day. I quote at length:

    The past is tremendously embodied in the hoary
    pyramid of Caius Cestius, which rises hard by, half
    within the wall and half without, cutting solidly into
    the solid blue of the sky and casting its pagan shadow
    upon the grass of English graves--that of Keats, among
    them--with an effect of poetic justice. It is a wonderful
    confusion of mortality and a grim enough admonition of
    our helpless promiscuity in the crucible of time. But the
    most touching element of all is the appeal of the pious
    English inscriptions among all these Roman memories;
    touching because of their universal expression of that
    trouble within trouble, misfortune in a foreign land.

 

I took pleasure in the surprising resonance of some of my own impressions with James's, and I was grateful that the ancient pyramid and the eighteenth-century cemetery had somehow persisted not only into James's world, but also, 130 years later, into our own, even though both are now changed; and that we continue to see, at least on rare occasions, what those before us saw, but with a difference for having come after them.

Just as I was about to return the book to its place on my shelf, a slip of paper fell out of it. It was dated February 15, 1996, and on it I had written words that I had long forgotten:

    I spoke to Betsy last night who was worried that people were
    already forgetting her father [my teacher, Christopher Lasch,
    who had died two years before]. I told her that his work was alive
    and well, that I had just taught The Culture of Narcissism
    in my graduate seminar and that the students were really excited
    by it. But she was concerned that people were forgetting him as a
    person; no matter that his work would live on. Also, she told me--
    and it was a very poignant thing--that as time passes, she misses
    him even more because she hasn't seen him for even a longer time.
    This made me think about the actual people buried in the Protestant
    Cemetery and how no individual life--not even Shelley, Keats, or
    Gramsci--could compete with their own work, with the eternal city of
    Rome, or with the image of St. Paul at the gates looking back at the
    pyramid.

 

Even though when I was in Italy I had been comforted by feeling something akin to what James had felt over a century before me, I couldn't help feeling now, ten years later, as I read over this note to myself, a terrible sense of bereavement: Betsy was right--the actual person was lost as soon as those who knew him stopped thinking about him, no matter if his work outlasted him and his generation. This was a new and alarming thought to me, as it unsettled a way of thinking about the idea of a classic that I have been developing for a number of years now. One version of the classic that I've been trying to recover is the eighteenth-century notion that works of art speak to future generations and attain a kind of immortality only insofar as the artist sheds his or her particularities and subjects him or herself to the impersonality of the practice of art. At the same time, I have been trying to revive the humanist understanding of the classic as the making of what Hannah Arendt once called "a home for mortal men," a stable, durable world out of an otherwise indifferent earth--the kind of aesthetic experience I was so glad to find in Whitman and in James. But, now, for the first time, it seemed to me that while the making of a common world of culture might guarantee the immortality of the artist's name, it in no way assured, indeed, perhaps it even worked against, the immortality of the actual living person who created the particular work.

The following morning I had to return to the Municipal Building. Before I crossed the street to enter the building, I looked up for the pleasure of seeing the Whitmanesque "Manahatta"--"a name, a word, liquid, sane, unruly, musical, self-sufficient"--only to find that it, in fact, read "Manhattan." And as my eyes moved earthward, the ugly cement barriers that have been so crudely erected, with no concern for architectural integrity, around virtually every government building in downtown Manhattan after September 11 filled my vision.

Rochelle Gurstein is the author of The Repeal of Reticence (Hill and Wang).

By Rochelle Gurstein

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