Monday, September 21, 2009

Cultural Landscape

The word in German (Kulturlandschaft) has just a little more bite, but to explain that fully would take up space. People who really possess multiple languages so that these manifest spontaneously in the head experience this problem now and then. The same word in another language simply conveys much more or has an extra dimension, what sometimes people astutely call a resonance.

When I first came to America I felt alienated because the architecture was all wrong. Leaving town I always had a sense of liberation, of once more being home, of breathing properly again. Soon we moved to another house, across from what we called Guillam Park (in Kansas City). Near us, easy walking distance, was the Rockhill Nelson Art Gallery; it topped a hilly region surrounded by upscale but tightly clustered and massively tree-shaded residences. The Gallery rapidly became for us a focus, shrine, object of weekly pilgrimages. From up there, on its stately terrace facing South, our eyes could sweep over expanses of cultivated gardens and lawns—and in the far, far distance, but visible, stood Midwest Research Institute (the arts and the sciences, as it were, arrayed face to face). Little did I dream then, in my edgy teens, that someday I would work there.

The picture here presents a view of one corner the Gallery in the distance, but as seen from MRI. In the foreground is the Volker fountain. It features St. Martin of Tours on horseback—a figure who looms very large in our family in many ways, not least in that he forms part of our “noble” name: Darnay of St. Martin. A charming feature of this fountain is the figure of a naked angel, a young boy, high a-top a pole, playing a flute but holding it the wrong way around—and wearing a wrist-watch. MRI isn’t visible but is behind the photographer.

Very nice. But this area, the Nelson Gallery raised, science in the flatlands, this imprint of culture, was, alas, just one of a few pocketses (as Gollum in Lord of the Rings would have it) in an otherwise theme-less and sometimes ugly, vast spread of structures, buildings, parking lots, and billboard-bearing thoroughfares. By contrast any small town in Europe—and especially in Italy, say—has another imprint difficult to capture analytically. But you sure as hell know that now you’re looking at a cultural landscape. Everything fits it. Everything proclaims its presence, somehow. It is the look of Christendom. (The next shot I owe to Michelle’s site, here.)

Back in those days I didn't understand the matter fully. In those days I used the labels Europe and America, and I assumed that Europe had culture and America lacked it. But many years later I received the needed corrective. We set out from Paris by car to drive to Tours. Yes. Our family’s links to St. Martin are densely woven. Having finally left the city behind, we began to pass through a landscape that—oh, my God—looked just like America, in general and in detail, and worst of all, in spirit. And I realized the truth. What I called Kulturlandschaft was simply the past, its traces still shaping the wax of matter from another time. And what I beheld in the United States, and increasingly everywhere, is the shape of values current in Modernity. The old persists—but it has become the achievement of small groups or individuals. “The sea of faith was once, too, at the full…” (Coleridge).

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