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The Stones of Washington

books and culture

The Stones of Washington

A lesson in the decay of civic artistry December 26, 2015
Arts and Culture

Washington: A History of Our National City, by Tom Lewis (Basic Books, 521 pp., $40)

Dostoevsky thought St. Petersburg the most “premeditated city in the whole world.” Perhaps it is; but if the former capital of Russian autocracy is a consummate expression of the Enlightenment’s faith in rational order, so, too, is its democratic twin—that other capital sprung full blown from an eighteenth-century masterplan, Washington D. C.

Washington has sometimes been called the American Paris, and it was a Parisian, Pierre L’Enfant, who came up with the city’s original design. But L’Enfant was a fanatic rationalist who did not understand his native city. The Euclidean Paris he admired was never the whole city, and indeed it emerged quite late. Its showpiece, the Axe Historique—the line of the Champs-Élysées—was laid out only in the seven-teenth century, half a millennium after the ground was broken for Notre Dame; Baron Haussmann’s Cartesian boulevards did not emerge until after L’Enfant’s death, in the reign of Napoleon III. These renovations modified but did not destroy the medieval city; the geometrical boulevards and étoiles of modern Paris are everywhere counter-balanced by the irregular artistry of the back streets, the crooked passages that the poet Villon knew, little plazas and culs-de-sac that form a humane counterpoint to the city’s rational and monumental splendors.

Washington is different. When you stray from the Euclidean thoroughfares, you are not, as in Paris, refreshed by a less rigorous approach to urban order: you are caught up in the monotonous perpendicularity of a Cartesian grid, so many numbered and alphabetized streets. Even the most ardent patriot, going up one of these anonymous wind tunnels in the teeth of a winter night, is likely to conclude that Washington, if it has much grandeur, has little intimacy.

It could have been worse. In Washington: A History of Our National City, Tom Lewis shows how easily Washington might have come to resemble Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Haussmann, as Prefect of the Seine, imposed his vision of Paris by imperial fiat; in democratic America, the work of capital-building was a pawn in a succession of power struggles, and much that was bold and good in L’Enfant’s plan was in danger of being lost in the squabbling.

For a brief moment the stars aligned. With decisive support from Theodore Roosevelt, whose campish cowboyism concealed a fastidious taste, the vision of the 1902 Senate Park Commission Plan prevailed; the possibilities latent in L’Enfant’s design were realized in much the same way those of Le Nôtre’s Axe Historique were realized by Haussmann in Paris. The “L” of L’Enfant’s design (with the White House at the top left and the Capitol at the bottom right) was expanded into an irregular cross, one centered roughly on the Washington Monument. The Lincoln Memorial completed the easternmost point of the transverse line of the cross, a counterpoint to the Capitol in the west; the Jefferson Memorial formed the southern tip of the longitudinal line, in counterpose to the White House in the north.

Lewis interleaves his account of the ups and downs of the building of the physical Washington with the travails of the civic or moral city. A true city, as conceived by the classical philosophers, is a form of fellowship objectified, a civic communion given material expression in buildings, squares, gardens, as well as in manners and traditions. Such a city possesses a certain unity and cohesiveness, very different from the formless chaos of the megalopolis. Its citizens have for it feelings not only of attachment but also of loyalty. They are, as Thucydides has Pericles say of the Athenians, erastas (lovers) of their city, so much so that it is painful for them to be separated from it. Thus Dante, banished from Florence, describes the misery of the exile who never sees his city “save in dreams.”

Washington has never been that kind of city. Its most powerful residents have been transients who came to it to fight for the interests of the folks back home or to debate the problems of the nation as a whole. Those who did look upon Washington as home, Lewis writes, were for much of the city’s history unable to chart their own civic destinies, being “wards of an all-too-often capricious and undependable guardian”—the U. S. government. Disenfranchised by Congress, Washingtonians “had no control over their civic affairs, and no representatives in the federal government.” Blacks, who today account for half of Washington’s population, were especially hard-pressed in a city where mandatory racial segregation prevailed until the 1960s.

Yet it is doubtful whether these legal and constitutional impediments adequately account for the failure of Washington to have developed a more distinctive civic culture. Civil rights and legislative representation have historically played only a small part in creating the sense of identity characteristic of the true city. The Slavs of the Adriatic, Rebecca West observed in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, were for centuries oppressed by the Venetians, the Turks, and the Habsburgs, yet during that time they created towns, like Split and Dubrovnik, that had a far more vital civic life than does the typical modern city. Nor was the case exceptional: the great civic and cultural centers of old Europe—Prague and Florence, Nürnberg and Bruges, Canterbury and Salamanca—were forged long before the advent of universal suffrage.

For all the charm of Lewis’s portraits of Washington notables, his book suffers from the nature of its subject. If there is much government in Washington, there is little city: and such city as there is has not enough intrinsic interest to carry a book of 500 pages. Like so many other new-made towns, Washington lacks whatever it is that gives Old Western (I have followed C. S. Lewis in capitalizing the words “Old Western” as he did in his lecture “De Descriptione Temporum”) cities like Arles and Kraków, Munich and Venice, their charm and interest. It would be extravagant to criticize Lewis for his failure to ask why Washington lacks this deeper civic artistry: yet it is difficult not to conclude that the problem of Washington—essentially the problem of the American city—is bigger than Lewis allows.

A truly revealing history of any American town, big or small, would take into account not only what is there but what is not there. It would look to the work of Léon Krier, John Ruskin, T. J. Gorringe, and Camillo Sitte for clues as to what is missing. It would ask why, in ages materially poorer than our own, men and women built beautiful towns while we, in our prosperity, pass our days amid prefabrication and poured concrete.

Such a history would pay close attention to the argument of Johan Huizinga in Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. Huizinga’s thesis—whose talisman is the cryptic passage in the Laws in which Plato says that man, being “God’s play-thing,” must make “his play as perfect as possible”—might seem merely whimsical. Yet Huizinga argues not implausibly that the arts which in the past gathered up the various threads of particular communities in the warp of a common culture were closely connected to play, an activity that he thinks allows people momentarily to escape the constraints of time and space, and to enter imaginatively a “region of dream, enchantment, ecstasy, laughter.”

Mystic bosh? Perhaps. But there is no getting around the fact that the arts before which we bow down today with such frigid solemnity had their origins in the exuberant creativity of the civic playpen. They are a byproduct of the life of the old town squares. Western theater grew out of the demotic song and dance of a Greek wine-drinking festival. Western architecture is an outgrowth of communal ritual: it was the need for liturgical focal points that bred the West’s paramount architectural idioms, that of the Greek temple and the Gothic cathedral. Ditto sculpture, which gave form to the community’s idea of the divine, and music, which regulated the rhythms of its festivals. The Floral Games at Toulouse, the tableaux vivants of Michelangelo’s Florence, the mystery plays of Metz and Nancy, the Venetian carnivals that captivated Veronese—these were the playful and popular nurseries of arts that have since been transplanted into the sterile, high-brow soil of the museum and the concert hall or transmuted into the solipsistic entertainments of the movie and television screen.

“What good is the art of all our [conventional] works of art,” Nietzsche lamented, “if we lose that higher art, the art of festivals? Formerly, all works of art adorned the great festival road of humanity, to commemorate high and happy moments.” Such artistic playfulness is all but extinct in the modern town; from the procession of Saint Gregory in the Duc de Berry’s Très Riches Heures to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is a steep descent. “The festival requires style,” Huizinga said. “If the festivals of modern times have lost their cultural value, it is because they have lost style.”

All this brings us back to the problem of Washington. To that artistry which makes a city, as opposed to a set of props for a postcard, Washington can lay little claim. Its vanilla ice-cream neoclassicism is flawless in technical detail but without instinct of life. It is a waxwork rose. The columns and pediments are cribbed from the dreams of other cities. Nor could it have been otherwise. It was impossible, in North America, that graceful forms should emerge spontaneously from the playfulness of a festival and ritual culture. From Washington to Wabash, Boston to Butte, the American town was nurtured in Puritanism; and it was the object of the Puritan to do away with the arts of the Old Western town square. He broke up its sculpture, interdicted its theater, cast a baleful eye over its poetry, and outlawed its feasting, dancing, and wine-drinking.

The spiritual flame of Puritanism has long since been extinguished, but its stylistic drabness, leavened with a dash of Yankee parsimony, continues to define American communities large and small. To be sure, we have put down, in every considerable town, a couple of beaux-arts or neoclassical temples—typically one of these is a morgue where we stick all the art we don’t care to have around us in “real” life. But our default mode is nevertheless wholly Puritan; the barren, unsensuous character of the products of the Modernist and Brutalist schools was in America a reversion to type. For the Modernist and the Puritan alike, art is a graven image.

“Without the music of some inspired Orpheus,” Carlyle says, “no city was ever built.” Lacking such music, the American town has never succeeded in tapping Huizinga’s “region of dream, enchantment, ecstasy, laughter.” It has therefore been unable to develop those solid and useful forms of civic order that are the paradoxical product, Huizinga tells us, of capriciousness and playfulness, of art that seeks constantly to evade life. The most serious forms of order rest on unserious foundations. As much as T. S. Eliot, Huizinga believes that human beings cannot bear too much reality: if they are to live together peaceably, they must have culturally sanctioned means of escape. He points to the uncanny power exerted by the masked figures in such Old Western entertainments as Greek tragedy and the baroque commedia dell’arte :

Even for the cultured adult of today the mask still retains something of its terrifying power, although no religious emotions are attached to it. The sight of the masked figure, as a purely aesthetic experience, carries us beyond “ordinary life” into a world where something other than daylight reigns . . .

Art that fails to afford us this glimpse of another world is for Huizinga bad art. His position is very much that of Proust, who in a memorable passage described the duty of the artist to evoke:

. . . a world altogether different from this one, a world we leave in order to be born on this earth, a world to which we shall perhaps return after we die, there to live beneath the sway of those unwritten laws which we obeyed on earth because we bore their precepts in our hearts, oblivious of the hand which traced them there—those laws to which every profound work of the spirit brings us nearer, and which are unknown only to imbeciles.

The astonishing contention of Proust and Huizinga that a purely secular or worldly art can only be bad art does not, of course, mean that good art must be religious. They rather believe that great art will always be in some degree an expression of man’s spiritual life; that it must have some connection to those twilight regions of consciousness overlooked by a modern commercial and scientific society; that it must have something of the enchantment of a dream. They both know that it is just because the griffins and sphinxes, satyrs and saints, of Old Western art really are faithful to the artistry of dreams that they are able to evoke worlds in which the ordinary laws of time and space are abrogated. Thus the dreamer routinely experiences the physically impossible: he meets the dead, or is in two places at once. At the same time, both Proust and Huizinga insist that the dreams of art are not simply fantasy, but are rather a revelation of spiritual—that is, otherworldly— truth.

What hope, then, for Washington, or indeed any city ungraced with a premodern artistic heritage capable of engaging, lightly and playfully, the imaginations of its citizens? It is not easy to see how, at this date, we can make good the history we never had. Obviously we can’t, in a pluralist culture, fall back on art connected with particular religious dispensations to promote civic cohesion. Yet attempts to contrive purely secular substitutes are invariably sterile—“pasteboard and filigree,” as Emerson said in dismissing the French Republic’s cult of reason and progress. Griffins and sphinxes, archaic though they are, retain their power over the imagination, as do saints and medieval gargoyles: but it is safe to say that the marble effigy of a bare-chested President Taft on the pediment of the Supreme Court building—he figures allegorically as the spirit of “Research Present”—moves nothing but derision.

No doubt the enlightened constitutional ideals to which Washington bears witness have given Americans a legal and political security vastly greater than that enjoyed by the Old Western man. The question is whether these political forms, valuable as they are, can replace the irrational playfulness and mystic diversions of Old Western art. Our modern politics “is a matter of words, of ambitions, of votes,” Joseph Conrad has a character in Under Western Eyes observe, “and if of feeling at all, then of the sort of feeling which leaves our deepest affections untouched.” The artistry of the Old Western community, if it very often failed to stave off political disaster, was yet able to stir the deeper affections in a way our modern institutions do not. The citizen was not merely a consumer of art: the liturgical and festival culture of his community obliged him to be in some measure a producer of it. When Aristotle said that man is a zōon politikon, a creature of a polis, he neglected to add that as such he is an artist, with a part, however small, to play in fashioning his city’s common art. Beasts and gods do not need a polis, but man does, not simply on account of the fellowship it provides, but precisely because that fellowship is shaped by arts in which he invests a portion of himself.

Tom Lewis closes his fine, if limited, book on Washington in a spirit of optimism, pointing to signs that its citizens have “rediscovered the idea of community that many had forgotten.” It is an optimism I find myself unable to share; my own encounters with the American city and its suburban extrusions have too often put me in mind of the passage in Democracy in America where Tocqueville, unnerved by the incoherence of the civilization around him, uttered his prophecy of a fragmented world, one that throws a man “back forever upon himself alone, and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.” It may be precisely the kind of world we are building today.

Photo by RJ Schmidt

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