Friday, March 28, 2014

Useless Knobs & Neglected Nabobs

 Everyone seems to like a ruin.  Among my books there are at least a couple that address our fascination with the subject, two I can think of without resort to the actual shelves; Rose Macaulay's lovely big book from 1953, The Pleasure of Ruins, and then something similar on the history of follies, hermits, grottoes and the like, though I can't at this moment remember either title or author.  It would seem that so long as we've had history to speak of, someone has had the idea of poking around in the physical remains.  Archeology as such is a fairly modern undertaking, but as far back as Greece, I seem to remember Thucydides or someone stirring the dirt with a stick and ruminating on the dust of great civilizations.

Ruins have more recently become something of a trending "meme" on the Internet, as not a day goes by that someone in social media doesn't seem to post or re-post a photo essay on a ruined Russian theme park, or the collapsing "McMansions" of the Florida Gold Coast.

I confess I am myself fascinated by nearly all such.  I find I enjoy speculating as to the narrative behind boarded or bricked windows, unhinged doors, empty walks up to absent buildings.  In childhood I spent many happy hours exploring collapsed barns and out-buildings, spent afternoons in an abandoned brick schoolhouse at the edge of our property, and I returned over and over again to wander among the fallen stones in a neglected graveyard not far from my best friend's house.

There's something quite vulnerable and attractive in any useful thing that has survived it's usefulness, anything that endures, even if now neglected.  There's a sense of discovery unique to an encounter with something forgotten.

An architect friend once explained to me the necessity of the door lintel and the elegant innovation of the sash window.  It was fascinating stuff, though I can't say that I remember any of it now, leastways not so I could reproduce his explanation. Yet, I remember the conversation.  What was both moving and memorable in my friend's description of these things was first his enthusiasm for good design at any scale, and secondly his conviction that well-made things, any and all well-made things, have an aesthetic value that survives their utility.  That lesson I'm unlikely to ever forget.

What in my parents' youth had still been an almost exclusively agricultural community was in my youth still a rural place; the landscape defined by the distances between town and house, between farms, from barn to backdoor.  Directions were given according to family names; left at the ol' Miller place, right at the Bigelow farm.  The townships and villages often as not kept the names of the closed coal-mines and company towns; Number 5, Blacktown and the Irishtown Road.  The past was always present then.  Some of the history I saw as a child extended back beyond the American Civil War.   That event, and others less familiar and well before it, were still indistinctly present to me in some of abandoned buildings I explored, in place names without places attached, even in the woods all around where one might find a chimney in the trees, or cork-stopped bottles in the dirt.  I could put my hand in those days directly on the dead, in a way, reading a book propped up against a weathered headstone, Huckleberry Finn as real to me as that unknown "beloved son," or the nameless soul who "fell at Antietam."   There were stones there as old as the War of 1812. 

(The past was present in another way as well.   A silly vogue in the 1960s of my childhood, and one of the uglier affectations I found when I was finally invited into middle class homes as a kid consisted of various "quaint" farm-implements: horse-halters, butter-paddles and the like, hung on the walls of otherwise thoroughly modern kitchens.  In the midst of avocado appliances, vinyl wallpapers in plaid or sunflower patterns and wall-to-wall kitchen-carpeting, there might be a weirdly anachronistic tableau of a churn with a crock or two, framed by a tin washboard, or a pickle-barrel full of false flowers.  It was all too thoughtlessly rural and precious; nostalgia for a false simplicity, the way of life "lost" having been harder than hell, and dirty, and dim. There might have been something wonderful in the curve of a hoe, but I don't think that had much to do with why it was nailed above the latest Maytag dishwasher.)

I've made something of a study of these odd circular objects, painted over on the wall by a disused back entrance to the bookstore where I work.  I'm embarrassed to admit how long it took me to work out their function as door-stops for the doors that don't open anymore.  I just liked the look of these now useless knobs, and the fact that no one had felt obliged to pry them out when the door was sealed some time before I started working at the store.  I suspect, from other details of the doorway that these little bumpers predate the disused glass doors; the placement is wrong, and there appears to have been a wider arch that's been brought down.  Maybe this was a loading-dock.  Why there are two door-stops on one wall of the entryway and just one on the other, I couldn't say.  I just like that they've been absorbed into the building; like the bricked windows on the alley, and the stoop that stayed after yet another door went away.  (The bookstore's present dimensions include not only the original location -- converted in the 1930s from the original pool hall at this address -- but also what were neighbors to either side.  The bookstore now extends to fill the better part of the block.  Hence, on the alley-side, are all sorts of anomalous features of past tenants.)  Whatever their original utility, I like the look of them, the simplicity of the design, the solidity of them, even the way they feel; all rock-hard, weathered rubber in a thick metal ring, all covered now in generations of paint.

I won't belabor the obvious analogy to most of the books I've been reading lately, though I will say I saw it as soon as I decided to go out and take these snapshots of those useless knobs.  I've been reading more history than otherwise for months now; all of it old, none of it, I should imagine of much use anymore as history, if by history one imagines the best contemporary scholarship on the past, but then, that isn't the kind of history that I've wanted: Parkman, Prescott, Carlyle, James Anthony Froude, Schiller's history of the Thirty Years' War, and most recently, a two volume history of The Venetian Republic, by Hazlitt's grandson.  Truth be told, I seem to have gone off fiction a bit in recent months, so instead I've been reading narrative history.  I've enjoyed it all immensely, but until I thought about it a bit more today, I might have had considerable difficulty in justifying all these historians if challenged.

For example, there's my most recent acquisition from the used bookstore down the street, William Carew Hazlitt's The Venetian Republic: Its Rise, its Growth, and its Fall, 421 - 1797, in two volumes, published by Adam and Charles Black, London, 1900.  Just to confirm my thesis, I checked the indexes of four current books on Venice we happen to have new at the bookstore, and not one mentioned the Hazlitt.  Whatever the gentleman's contribution to the field one hundred and fourteen years ago, clearly the students of the subject have moved on.  I've never been to Venice and have no plans to go.  The Republic's history as such was not something I felt the want of.  So why read these two big volumes -- if in the end I do?

Why read Carlyle or Froude?  Both were serious, if much maligned scholars, particularly Froude; ridiculed in his own day for researches that were actually very near the modern standard; reading original sources, traveling to study the actual ground and the like.  High retrospective marks there, but obviously scholarship has long since passed them by in nearly every respect, whatever their subjects.  Carlyle at least was a philosopher of some repute, and Froude his official biographer and follower, but whatever original thought there was to be had from either was all but entirely negative; more damning than daring, and even at their best, as touched with ashes as flame.   Froude's style was much criticized at the time, though Santsbury and others sometimes defended it, and for the most part it runs smoothly enough to the reading now.  Carlyle himself regularly denied having any style at all, though he most obviously does and that among the most eccentric in all of English letters.  Neither historian do I find in the least sympathetic as to politics, nor does either seem to reach any conclusion from the facts they so admirably collected, many for the first time, but that it tends to be the wrong one in nearly every instance, at least from where I sit.

You get the idea.  For me then it comes to this, I read these writers for the quality of their story-telling, their wit and their power, whatever it may have once been in aid of.  I read Parkman and Schiller because they were great writers, because Carlyle and Macaulay and Prescott wrote great books, masterpieces of narrative history, some of 'em, because what they wrote and the way they wrote is still beautiful and interesting even if it no longer has much use, if use is to be narrowly, blandly and boorishly defined in the modern sense as "information."  What I learn from reading these once popular historians is not just more than I actually wanted to know about Carlyle's Frederick the Great, or Froude's Tudors, but something of the minds that wrote our history in the late 18th to the early 20th Century.

I glory in their confidence, even as I sometimes blush at their conclusions.  I read the historians as much or more than I find interest in the history.  And I admire the often amazing things they made from a past that had yet to be digitized and collated, codified and tamed.  Great writers needn't have been right always to now be read.

And yes, part of me still loves both the impeccably made object now past it's original purpose. The first volume of Macaulay's History, whatever it's faults as history, is still one of the monuments of 19th Century English prose.  Carlyle's French Revolution is still among the most thrilling narratives in the language.  Even in translation, Schiller's history still has the passionate rhetorical force of the new reviewing and revising the old.  So yes, I still like exploring the ruins, and sitting with the dead.  There is still value in what was, and what survives of what was once made of the past by men of even the most imperfect genius.  Better that than dull utility; I don't accept "information" as a reason to read anything other than newspapers and pill-bottles.  Give me writers first, the facts I can find on my own.

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