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Hope Springs Eternal: The Mary Wheeler Interview

Mary and Tim Wheeler, with son Christopher.  Courtesy Mary Wheeler. Prepare yourself(s) for an amazing interview with a largely u...

Sunday, May 28, 2017

...a pointless rock wall as a metaphor for the myopia of the culture-bound...

Israeli West Bank Barrier - Justin McIntosh. CC License.
A wall is defined as "a structure that defines an area, carries a load, or provides shelter or security".  Seems simple enough, but simple definitions are themselves walls that hide complex realities. 

Walls can be made from a large variety of materials and serve a large variety of purposes.  There are many kinds:  Curtain, Mullion, Partition, Party, Infill, Fire, Shear, Knee, Cavity, Pony...and that's just in building lingo.  We won't even go into Facebook walls and firewalls.  They can be works or art or canvases, even the screen for vast and complex animated films.  From Banksy to Blu, the ordinary can be made into something extraordinary, a reclamation of our shared environment.  We don't think about them too much, but we should, for they define us as humans as much as opposable thumbs, binocular vision, and the use of tools.  

"Tear down this wall!" signaled the end of a nearly 100-year geopolitical duopoly whose ramifications are still defining the world in which we live.  The wall in question came crashing down, and the clouds of dust are still settling.  Within this murky atmosphere, the blind and our one-eyed kings are clamoring to put walls back up.  The rich retreat behind them and some western nations are debating them as a way to keep the migrants out.  The collision between globalization and nationalism may well be a story of walls, or a lack thereof.

Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv. Public Domain.
But enough with the stentorian platitudes.  This post came about after seeing a photo of Trump at the Western Wall -- he loves his walls, -- and an EFL class I gave using public art and urbanization as its theme.  We discussed the Vietnam Memorial Wall, and I intended to do a short post about the two walls as places to grieve, where people leave mementos of their grief, whether rolled up pieces of paper with prayers written upon them, or mementos of a war whose combatants are now dying off.  The memories will soon be gone, but the wall will remain.

Some of the most famous walls -- The Great Wall of China, Hadrian's Wall, The Berlin Wall, The West Bank Barrier, Trump's proposed border wall -- were erected to keep people out...or in.  There are score thousands of lesser-known walls all across the world, like their cousins the fence, making manifest the abstract lines on a map that define the boundaries of private and public property, from the homeowner to the state, from anonymous mud-brick dwellings to the only human structure visible from space.  They shelter and protect us from the outside world, from threats real and imagined.  But I wanted to speak of other kinds of walls.

Some of these walls are metaphors, like Pink Floyd's Wall, the emotional barriers to shut out the world, to compartmentalize experience, the kind of walls that allow a preacher to spread the gospel on Sunday and snort methamphetamine with male prostitutes on Saturday.  Or in this case "where traumatic experiences are represented as 'bricks' in the metaphorical wall [the hero] constructs around himself that divides him from society."

 

The Walls of Jericho were blown down a trumpet....the Walls of Jerusalem and countless other cities the scene of great mayhem and carnage.  Alexander the Great scaled walls like a spider, single-handedly jumping into a walled city to inspire his troops along their unstoppable march to India and back to Macedonia.  And when there were no more walls to breach, he died.

"Shaka, when the walls fell"....in an episode of Star Trek, this is a phrase uttered by an alien trying, incidentally, to break down the walls between humans and his race.  In that episode, the language barrier is eventually overcome.  The aliens speak in allegory and though Capt. Picard and crew understand the words, the meaning is lost without knowing the ur-tales to which the allegory refers.  When the walls fall, the language barrier drops.  Dialogue is established and when Riker asks Picard if they'd made friend that day, Picard can answer that at the very least, they didn't make an enemy.

Some walls exist only because they are all that's left of an edifice, like The Western Wall, the last remaining remnant of Solomon's temple.  Jews go there to mourn the destruction of the Temple and pray for its reconstruction, leaving prayers on rolled up papers pushed into the crevasses.  It is the holiest site where Jews are allowed to pray -- the holiest site is actually behind it.  Some rabbis teach that the Foundation Stone is located near the El-kas fountain, opposite the exposed section of the wall and where the Holy of Holies once stood.  As a practical reality, the wall symbolizes the great obstacle to the restoration of Judaism, for Islam's second-holiest shrine, the Dome of the Rock, sits atop the Temple Mount.  Its destruction would unleash Armageddon.  As long as the Dome of the Rock stands, the Temple cannot be rebuilt.  It is an impassable wall with apocalyptic ramifications.  As the location of the Foundation Stone, it recalls that our earthly creation was in effect the separation of Man from God; it is a great wall separating Heaven from Earth.

In addition to the mosque on the Temple Mount, Muslims revere the wall because it is believed that the Prophet's miraculous steed was tethered to it by Muhammad during his night flight to Jerusalem.

Stoning the Devil in Mina - Al Jazeera English. CC License.
During the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca incumbent upon all able-bodied Muslims with the means to undertake it, Muslims also perform a ritual called the Stoning of the Devil.  Pilgrims throw seven pebbles at three walls (jamarāt), from east to west, in order to reenact a part of Abraham's pilgrimage, where he threw pebbles at three pillars.  For safety reasons, in 2004 these pillars were replaced by walls.  The walls represents God's temptation of Abraham, Hagar, and Ishmael to renounce the sacrifice of Ishmael.  They also represent casting away base desires and are a repudiation of the self before God.  This renunciation also serves to bring the pilgrim closer to God; the walls in effect represent not just temptation, but sin itself, and thus represent, much like the Western Wall, the separation of God and Man.

Again, like the Western Wall, walls serve a stand-in for the buildings themselves.  Sacred Walls:  Learning from Temple Symbols, is a book about the symbols found on the walls of a Mormon temple, symbols which communicate to the faithful.
Both books and buildings have voices.... However, even though architectural symbolism existed before the written word, the message of a building is often difficult for most of us to recognize.

For Latter-day Saints, temples are the most important and symbolic buildings in existence. Through temples the unique doctrines of the restored gospel are communicated...

This unique and fascinating book is designed to help you see the House of the Lord with new eyes as you examine the “voices” of temple exteriors along with the “voices” of the Book of Mormon....
Gate of a Hunting Ground - Jean Jacques Lequeu. Public domain.
This is no different from a Catholic cathedral, which is in many ways a Bible in stone, a visual didactic tool for the illiterate.  It is "architecture parlante" -- or speaking architecture.  Architecture parlante may be as simple as an inscription or phrase, a quote perhaps, to instruct and to declare the building's purpose.  Or it may be that building's form reflects its purpose:  the cooper's atelier is shaped like a barrel, the brothel resembles an erect penis (yes, those were real proposals).  The idea of architecture parlante was originally "voiced" at the time of the French Revolution by architects Claude Nicolas Ledoux, Étienne-Louis Boullée, and Jean-Jacques Lequeu"The same concept, in the somewhat more restrained form of allegorical sculpture and inscriptions, became one of the hallmarks of Beaux-Arts structures" and was a recurring feature of American civic architecture.  The severity of Modernist architecture saw a decline in the use of ornament and inscription, but Post-Modernist architects have revived it.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington is composed of three parts: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, the Three Servicemen Memorial, and the Vietnam Women's Memorial.  These latter were erected to appease early critics of the original memorial -- which consisted of the Wall alone -- who deemed it shameful because of its unconventional design, black color and lack of ornament.  Sad to say, architect Maya Lin's gender and ethnicity were a factor in much of the negative reaction (Ross Perot reportedly called her an "egg roll").   It's since become highly regarded, if not revered.  The Memorial Wall is a wall that doesn't enclose or bear anything at all.  Like the Western Wall, people leave articles, not prayers necessarily, but personal mementos.  As one travels along the wall it gets higher and the names of the dead eventually rise over one's head.  It's a mournful black, and a mirror in which one can see oneself reflected.  It is spare, elegant and deeply moving.  It has the atmosphere of a holy place, like an outdoor temple.  Visitors are hushed and while there is no wailing, there are a lot of tears.  It's perhaps one of the most powerful memorials in Washington, and has been described as a "wound that is closed and healing".  In a sense, it is architecture parlante, and it is a dialogue.

The three soldiers appear to be looking at the wall and there is something archetypal about their number: Three Kings, Freemasonry's Three Ruffians, The Trinity.... 
 
Cliff (cliff1066) - http://www.flickr.com/photos/nostri-imago/3041642644/.  CC License.
The Women's Memorial also depicts three uniformed women evoking perhaps the Three Mary's, with a wounded soldier.  It is a Pietà in all but name.

The wall has proven so popular that at one point three half-sized portable versions traveled across the country and to date have attracted tens of millions of visitors.  There are four other traveling versions of differing scale, and four fixed replicas.

The idea that architecture can communicate something, a set of ideals or civic virtues, may be a high-falutin' topic to be bandied about by art historians and architects, but something in it resonates in the popular imagination:  "If these walls could talk...." some people say, as if the walls, silent witnesses, retain memories of scenes enacted within them, like video cameras which record but cannot play back.  The artists Blu and Banksy have made them speak, however, often quite eloquently.  The simple wall, however, unadorned, can often speak volumes.  While ostensibly barriers, they can serve to identify where one space meets another and serve as points of communication.  Why have more than one space at all?  Boundary stones, fences, great walls....are these basically human equivalents of pissing on rocks to mark a territory, like most graffiti?  One piss stain upon another?  I dunno, It's too late for more of my grade-school philosophizing.  I just thought it was neat how that photo of Trump at the Western Wall popped into my monitor about the same time I was discussing the Vietnam Memorial Wall, two walls where people feel compelled to leave stuff.  The rest is just riffing.  Breaking on through to the other side.

And with that, I'm Audi 5000.


PS

Looks like I hit "Publish" too soon.  Reading about the Robert Frost poem "Mending Wall" (of "Good fences make good neighbors" fame), I came across the following analysis of the themes, stating more or less what I was trying to say at some point in the post:
The poem explores the contradictions in life and humanity, including the contradictions within each person, as man "makes boundaries and he breaks boundaries".  The poem also explores the role of boundaries in human society as mending the wall serves both to separate and to join the two neighbors, another contradiction....Then, in "Mending Wall", Frost meditates on the role of language as a kind of wall that both joins and separates people.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

A Decrepit Beacon of Enlightenment



Blagnac Histoire & Memoire is an historical society dedicated to the history of, ta-da! Blagnac, a small city and suburb of Toulouse. It's a wealthy city with lots of tax revenue generated by Airbus and its well-paid employees, so the association gets a decent subsidy from the Mairie to print their review, Blagnac, Questions d'Histoire. In 2013 the association published a special edition exploring the histories of the city's street and place names. Almost an entire page is dedicated to the Place de la Révolution, discussed many times here on LoS because of the curious monument located there which has been dubbed the "Illuminati Pyramid" but more accurately is named Le Temple de la Sagesse Supreme. Oh what a monster we unleashed upon the English-speaking world! (I can't tell you how many sites reproduce several of my photos and field observations without attribution. The French pull little these little tricks as well....I just tried to right-click and save an image of the world map from another website but they'd blocked that function and a little message popped up to tell me the image was protected by copyright. Fair enough, but I'd originally created the image! The author had copied a photo I took and had the nerve to claim copyright!)

I've decided to translate the entry regarding this curious plaza for your edification. For further elaboration, feel free to peruse our posts bearing this tag. 

 


RÉVOLUTION FRANÇAISE (Place de la) F7 

Conceived as the Southern port of entry into the Grand Noble quarter, this plaza was built in 1989 as a solemn commemoration of the bicentennial of the French Revolution; it is also officially known as the Place du Bicentenaire, (Bicentennial Plaza). It displays more or less easily identifiable symbols that recall one of the great founding acts of our history.

A large rectangle, delimited by monumental arcades, the plaza combines a play of circles, ovals and spokes. It starts as a central tumulus, crowned with a pyramid pierced by a window, inserted into a frame in the form of a house.  The pyramid is a fountain where from hundreds of holes water gurgles into a basin in the form of a double hemisphere world map.  In front of the pyramid, bronze stelae represent the cosmos and bear the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.  Facing the pyramid on the North is a large belvedere-gallery and to the South an ensemble with a long shaft surmounted by a tricolor flag and a votive column wearing a Phrygian cap and a cockade.

When he presented his project in 1988, architect Jean-Philippe Dubourg, winner of the contest organized by the city, explained that all these are linked: 
"The belvedere emits a laser, a ray of light pure and abstract, on a North-South axis....This light will modulate, taking on the essence of the Rights of Man as it passes through the Temple of Supreme Wisdom (the pyramid) and the House (allegory of the Homeland)...Thus symbolically metamorphosed, the ray of light will be refracted in the parabola (the cockade) of the votive column of the French Revolution, spreading  the incontrovertible truths contained in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen into the ether....the central tumulus is a also a subtle botanical garden, metaphor of France as a gentle garden of liberty, planted with a Liberty Tree and a multitude of perennial plants, from gaillardia to santolina, plants dating from the Revolution."

In the opinion of his colleagues and fellow architects, Jean-Philippe Dubourg's project paid homage to Enlightenment philosophy and to the revolutionary ideals which it inspired; without a doubt, through the pyramid, to Freemasonry (whose role in the genesis of the Revolution has been greatly exaggerated); and finally to the great architects of the 18th century (Boullée, Ledoux and Lequeu); all the while applying the precepts: 
"A rational architecture using simple geometric forms and having a moral bearing on Man."
Since 1989 the plaza has suffered from the wear and tear of time and from technical failures.  The laser, victim of recurrent outages, never really functioned.  The double hemisphere world map has disappeared under a coating intended to plug leaks.  On the stelae, on looks in vain for the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen; the support panel is loose and damaged...Perhaps it will one day recover its place?  Finally, the garden has lost its luxuriance, the maintenance requiring too much care....Despite all this, the plaza has retained a certain allure.

The plaza has gained, despite itself, a renown well beyond the limits of Blagnac, thanks to the Internet.  According to Internauts fond of esotericism, it symbolizes the "New World Order", a world dominated by a small elite of initiates: the Illuminati.  This thesis hasn't failed to astonish and amuse the citizens of Blagnac; maybe they were flattered to discover that a monument in their city illustrates such a remarkable plan? 

B.Q.H n. 1-2-3-4-8

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Battle of the Battle of Liberty Place

White League propaganda. These are the fellows honored by the Battle monument.... (Wikimedia Commons)
When the Battle of Liberty Place monument, a memorial honoring those who died in an attempt to overthrow the city government after the Civil War, came down two weeks ago, contractors did the work in the middle of the night wearing kevlar and face masks.
WaPo: Tensions rise....

It irks me a bit that this article conveys the message that everybody against removing Confederate memorials are either racists and/or apologists for slavery.  Camo-clad, pistol-packin', Trump-lovin', flag-wavin' good ole boys sittin' on the porch with a moon-pie in one hand and a Mason jar of RC Cola in the other.  That said, take a good look at that cartoon.  One would hope that the Liberty Place monument's defenders are ignorant of exactly what it was they are defending when it comes to this particular chicken-fried obelisk.  Sadly, I can't escape the fact that many of them know exactly what it means.  David Duke certainly did when he tried to hold a rally there.  And I'd bet the phoned-in threats that made spiriting it away like thieves in the night a necessity weren't made by kindly old ladies dividing their Golden Years between the Daughters of the Confederacy and the flower-arranging club.

I think that somehow contextualizing these kinds of monuments would be better than just taking them away in the dead of night.  Are we eventually going to take down any memorial to the Confederate war dead?  If you look at the history behind the Liberty Place monument, and the literal white supremacist messages inscribed upon it, it's hard to lament its removal.  But its presence at least reminded people of the events which it honored, and those are events worth remembering.  I would suggest a kind of counter monument that incorporated the original, a way to re-interpret both the event itself and the earlier monument that sought to glorify it.  Becoming a kind of monument about a monument.  A meta-monument.  Or shit, just take it down and put it in a museum.  But doesn't stealing it away under cover of darkness send a message of fear, or give the impression that there's more support for it than there actually is?

It's like the KKK gravestone in Deland, Florida I've written about.  It would be a forgotten bit of local folklore if removed.  As it is, the stone radiates a kind of forlorn air, covered as it is with the stains of piss and beer bottles, perhaps other effluvia.  It reeks of defeat.  At worst, neglected; at best, covered with marks of loathing for what it represents, pooh stains on a white sheet.  The dank drapery of a defunct douche-bag.  But trying to erase history is always a bad move.  That grave inspired a lot of research on my part, edging me me towards investigating many facets of African-American history I might not otherwise have been motivated to learn about.  I felt I had to counteract a monument to the despicable.

Some kind of interpretive stelae for the Liberty Place monument may have been more powerful than a midnight removal.  Imagine coming across a glorious obelisk and then learning it carried blatant messages of white supremacy and sought to honor a white supremacist army?  A good number of people would check it out, learn something about how the end of the Civil War didn't necessarily mean the end of racial bloodshed and armed civil strife.  About how the League operated in the open, explicitly agitating for the overthrow of the Reconstructionist government and then trying to make it happen through intimidation, murder and in Liberty Place, armed insurrection.  And where they failed in violence, they succeeded through democracy.  Democrats regained control of the state legislature in 1876, two years later.

So now they're preparing the removal of statues to Generals Lee and Beauregard and President Jefferson Davis, and the situation is fraught with tension, primed for some kind of violent reaction.  Interesting story.  I wrote about the decision to remove the statues back in 2016 and had some more cogent comments.  As a historian, I'm simply loathe to cover up the past, no matter how loathsome.  Although I'm not really torn up about it, I do think it would be a shame if the next targets are monuments to Confederate war dead.  People should be able to honor their ancestors.  I know, why would I bother to defend these people?  I just don't "get it".  I do get it, but this kind of controversy doesn't do nuance very well.  Some of those soldiers were despicable men, but many of the grunts were just kids, protecting their lands and their sovereignty.  Call me naive, but I've always been in the "better to let ten guilty men go free than convict once innocent man" camp.  One of the pitfalls of actually believing in the ideals of the Founding Fathers.  Beauregard and Lee I could care less about.  History will remember them.  But who will remember those poor young dudes they led to the slaughter?

In any event, the people have spoken, the monuments will fall.  I really do hope they do something though, to explain the story of Liberty Place.  That was pretty messed up.  The White League that initiated the insurrection was a nasty bunch.  The whole business had started in 1872 over a disputed election and had already led to one conflict, or massacre, at Colfax, where 150 freedmen were killed by a white militia.  At least 50 of them had been killed after having been taken prisoner.  These were not the gallant warriors of myth, and many of these militiamen were part of the White League that later tried to capture New Orleans, and succeeded, until Federal troops moved in and ousted them.  No one was ever prosecuted.  The 1891 monument interpreted the ensuing events in order to honor the insurrectionists and in 1932 the city added an inscription stating that the election of 1876 vindicated the insurrectionists, recognizing white supremacy in the South.  No tears here to see it go, but mightn't it have served a better role as a kind of elaborate public urinal?

If the vow to set these statues in a museum is honored, I think the public would be better served than placing them in secret warehouse next to the Ark of the Covenant and the alien cadaver.  The monument is a powerful shock to our modern sensibilities, which is a good sign that times have changed.  That they had to take such extraordinary precautions to remove it shows just how much times haven't.

So I guess this is a contradictory mass of feelings about the issue after all.  Many people want them removed and I think I want them to stay for the very same reasons.  A question, then, not of the goal, but of the strategy on how to attain it.  Or maybe not.  I don't want people to forget this stuff.  I want them to remember....