Wednesday, July 15, 2009

To The Upper West Side

(The view as I re-entered the 21st Century after my movie.)

A month after our yearly UW trip, I find myself back in New York. Susan is here for a seminar, and I need little prodding to accompany her. Four full and two half days in the city with only a dinner date each day on my calendar; it just doesn't get better than this.

(I didn't bring a real camera, so my iPhone pictures are few and sucky. So I'll supplement with thefts from the web.)

Today, the Upper West Side. I made my twice-a-decade trip up to 190th St. to the Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum's medieval outpost. Their collection begins right around 1000 and continues up to about 1500 CE. This place mesmerizes me less for its art--which is all Jesus, all the time, including all manner of gruesome obsessive-compulsive meditations on crucifixion--than for the building itself and its setting. A replica of a period stone castle, it has thick walls and tapered deep window wells and huge stone fireplaces and broad stone stairways that one expects in a castle. It's all very dark and foreboding, and I would live in such a setting--scrubbed of its torture-fetish d├ęcor--in a heartbeat (my wife groans at this). I mean, really: a house made entirely of carved stone! What's not to love? It sits on a high hill overlooking the Hudson, with nary a modern, urban sight in view (well, except for the George Washington bridge a ways downriver). There is an open central garden area--the namesake cloister--that is surrounded by a covered walkway, separated off with stone pillars and arches. This is in the center of the building, and there is another similar area just outside the building's walls, with a view of the Hudson down below. It's all very un-New-York in setting, but a lovely get-away when one needs a break from the city.

One work of art in the collection that intrigues me (unlike the section called "the Treasury," where the unimaginable wealth of the early church is displayed with little regard for the poor and miserable who suffered and died so that the priests and bishops could demand a life of privilege) is the famous Unicorn Tapestries. Dating from around 1500, the seven tapestries are less intriguing for the mythology they relate (the interpretation of which is in any case broadly disputed) than for the snapshot they provide into 15th Century life. Their color is still fairly vibrant, and they show exquisite detail. These, along with paintings of the period, are the closest we get to a photograph of life at the time. There are visible lines under people's eyes, and the eyes themselves are carefully-rendered and quite expressive. The details of period dress, the look of the dogs, the weapons used, etc.; these things are all plainly shown here, along with castles and trees and other foliage in the background. I've noted them on previous visits, but for some reason these struck me this time as a window into the distant past.

After a brief pause in the museum's snack shop for a DC and a cookie (during which I was nearly carried away by extremely aggressive little songbirds who wanted my cookie perhaps even more than I did--though I could have warned them that they fuck with the fat guy's cookie at their peril) I headed back down to 110th for a visit to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. I've been here a couple times over the years, but not for a decade now. I took an interest in the place years ago both as an architectural freak show and also as the locale of one of Ernest M. Skinner's great organs. The huge instrument is made even more noteworthy for its awesome State Trumpet (an addition by Skinner's nemesis, G. Donald Harrison, some 40 years after the original installation), a horizontal reed stop voiced on 50" of wind pressure (instead of 5" of pressure like a normal organ stop) and placed up under the great Rose Window some 500' away from the main organ. This stop is said to be so loud that it startles parishioners and thus it is never used for church services. Quite apart from the cringing parishioners (who surely close their pocketbooks instinctively when startled), the extreme distance between the organist and the State Trumpet makes timing problematic. Recordings do not do full justice, I'm sure, but on the one good Telarc recording I have of the instrument the State Trumpet just sounds fearsome and penetrating, like a stop that does not play well with others. But I grasp the need: I've not heard the organ live, but it's hard to imagine any normally-constituted organ can adequately fill the impossibly massive space, let alone pummel the faithful.

Billed as one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in the world, the structure has been under construction since the cornerstone was laid in 1892. Much of the time, anyway; there is no building work currently going on. There was a fire in the North Transept in December of 2001 which was brought under control before it could do extensive damage, but it left a nasty layer of soot on everything (including the organ) and destroyed the cathedral's gift shop and a couple of its stained glass windows and some priceless tapestries. Some years were spent recovering from that, and everything (minus the gift shop) was back opened to the public by late 2008. But a lot of the building remains unfinished; I hadn't realized how much. From the outside the amount of work remaining is quite visible--though I'd managed not to make note of it before now--and even inside, the nave is spectacular in its immensity, but it reaches the crossing and it abruptly looks like a work in progress. There are temporary cinderblock walls on both sides of the crossing, and several steel braces hold things in place in the absence of the needed stone elements. Apparently during the Ed Koch era, the cathedral undertook a new push toward finishing the century-old project, even taking on master stonemasons who trained classes of apprentices on-site. But all that is gone now and the building looks destined, for the time being anyway, to remain in an "as-is" condition.

Maybe I have it all wrong; maybe the cathedral is really doing quite well--after all, the recovery from the fire, including the complete disassembly and cleaning of the organ, which is back in service, must have been quite expensive. I'm aware that many of the great Gothic cathedrals of the world took centuries to build. And I know that millions of people profess belief in their gods and go regularly to churches and shell out their savings and so on and so forth. But this building, on this day, feels like an unfinished monument to another era, a huge undertaking which will never be finished without the means of enforced participation that the cathedral-builders of old employed. Sure, the state or the city (when finances are in much better form than they are today) could cough up a couple tens of millions--small change, really--and see the project finished just for its cultural cache. But it all feels a bit deathly to me. The sheer excess of it, something for which America is noted in so many other places, seems unsustainable and a bit obscene here. I paid my five bucks to walk in the door, along with the other 20 people who were gawking like me, but that $1000 bucks a day isn't going to go very far in that building.

For my love of the architecture and the music, I would be content to be proved wrong and to see the magnificent building finished. But as an indication of the falling participation of people in this brand of societal mythology, I would be happier to see it remain as it is now, a monument to a crutch we no longer need.

(Not from the Cathedral. Too bad, especially if the sprinkling were holy water!)


shrimplate said...

Wunelle- thanks for "getting it," which is evident in the things you write and the photos you take.

I do not mean to sound self-congratulatory, but I have always had aesthetic and ethical sensibilities. It seems not everyone is this way. George W. Bush I don't belief had any ability whatsoever, nor any interest in, observing beauty. You apparently do. It's quite something to be thankful for, isn't it?

wunelle said...

You're sweet to say it!

I'm not sure how much I "get," but I figure I see what I see and I'm wired in a certain way to appreciate some things and not others. I realize that my vision will not resonate with many, which is what makes blogging so cool: we can find other like-minded people with whom to share our experiences.

(You and I may be about the only two organ-music-loving atheists in the country!)