Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Inconstancy of Fortune

The Wayne Country Treasurer once more issued a paid supplement to the Detroit Free Press advertising listings of forfeited properties subject to foreclosure. The supplement runs to 127 pages. I sampled some pages, counted the listings, and the extended that count to the entire publication. Thus I conclude that the county wishes to seize something like 26,400 properties because their owners, listed with every posting, have failed to pay taxes.

Everything leaves its paper trail in modern culture. Those of us who, sometimes—perhaps because visitors want to see the devastation they’ve heard about in the news—engage on hour-long drives into the abandoned wastes of the City of Detroit thus could, if we wished, thanks to the labors of our county treasurer, actually identify the people who once inhabited homes through the broken roofs of which now strong trees are growing. In summer the structures are sometimes quite hidden by the obscuring foliage.

This reminded me of an essay in my The Portable Renaissance Reader, written by Poggio Bracciolini in 1430 and titled “The Ruins of Rome.” Goes around comes around. Bracciolini, in company of his friend, Antonio Lusco, ride out and mount the Capitoline hill. From there, dismounting, they survey a scene of Rome in ruins and meditate about the inconstancy of fortune. Curiously the chapter of my Portable Reader in which this essay is reproduced is titled “Learning of the Best Sort.” I find that apt today. Because in some ways it is instructive to contemplate the movements of the great water-wheel of time. It descends into the depth empty but rises again at right repeating rotations carrying the living waters to disgorge them into channels. At times we see the water, at times the emptiness. And to see both is to learn something meaningful.

The mood of reading Dante is still present for me. And reading the Divine Comedy strongly reminded me that the extreme compressions that produce words like “The Renaissance” hide the reality beneath temporary glows of light or gathering darkness that different eras manage to produce. Dante’s times, seen from the ground, as he saw them, were not that different from ours. And he wrote at a time  roughly 130 years or so before Bracciolini sorrowed over Rome. I wonder what Rome looked like in Dante’s days. Not much better, I don’t suppose. The balance of good and evil in every time is much the same.

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