by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, September 8, 2019
I’m reading The Map of Knowledge: A Thousand Year History of How Classical Ideas Were Lost and Found by Violet Moller where she describes how books were important in seven beautiful cities in the ancient world. Over and over again Moller describes how a conquerer builds a city, embraces books and libraries, and founds a new civilization. They raise magnificent buildings and evolve a culture. Then someone else comes around and sacks the city.
It occurred to me that if humanity had preserved everything great we built the world would be beautiful all over. Moller describes the founding of Baghdad and it sounded magnificent. But all I can think about is how ugly that city is when I see it on the news. How many civilizations have built countless gorgeous edifices that have disappeared in time? Which is worse, war or entropy? People and decay eventually ruin everything beautiful?
Last week we watched The Biggest Little Farm on Amazon about a couple who transformed an ugly drought-brown farm into something amazingly green and beautiful. Humans have the ability to go walk out into a desert and create what you see below.
But soon or later we do this:
It takes so much effort to transform chaos into order you’d think we do everything possible to protect what we create. Moller writes about all the books and libraries that have been destroyed before the invention of the printing press. I know it’s hard to build something that lasts because everything eventually wears out, decays, falls apart, or is bombed, burned, or torn to pieces. But I think we could make things last far longer if we tried. What if the hanging gardens of Babylon still existed? Or all the larger works of the Mayans and Aztecs?
Just think how beautiful the world would be if we had spent all the money we spent on wars into preserving the best of our cultures. Sure there are lots of incredibly beautiful places that exist now, but what percentage of everything are they, and how long will they last? Imagine every city an entire work of art.
Quite often on television, I see documentaries about grand buildings that existed within my parents and grandparents lifetimes. Historical societies struggle to preserve as many as they can, but all too often we bulldoze aged building to make way for new ones. Sure it is natural for us to get tired of some buildings, but do we always have to? The other day I saw a story about an entertainment complex for teenagers in the 1940s where it had a roller skating rink, an immense pool, and a pavilion for music and dancing. Photos showed something very elegant, and to my modern eye very nostalgically attractive. I wished it still existed so I could go hear big band music live. Photos taken just before it was destroyed show it dilapidated and sad looking. Why did we let it fade away? I guess not everyone wants to hang onto the past.
When I drive through most commercial districts today everything looks utilitarian and tawdry. Depending on the wealth of the locale, the designs run from crappy decaying to hip conformity to city council standards. I can drive for miles on certain big city thoroughfares and see a repeating array of chain stores and restaurants. It feels like the cycling background in the old Hanna-Barbera cartoons. Wasn’t it more beautiful in the old days where every business building was unique?
I can remember over sixty years of changes. I can’t count the number of buildings I once knew that no longer exist. You’d think we’d construct every structure to last and to be the most beautiful it could be by the current architectural fashion. There’s a magazine I love to look at, Atomic Ranch, that reveres the mid-century ranch house. That’s an era I thought was beautiful. Sure, it’s not Athens or Alexandria, but the look is very appealing to me. I wonder if a mid-century modern neighborhood could be preserved for a thousand years.
It’s odd how ideas come to us. I was reading a book and I wondered why it isn’t beautiful everywhere we looked. Our species certainly has built enough beautiful objects to cover the earth. Why haven’t we preserved them?
Of course, I’m one answer. We’ve let our house rundown. Suan and I have never been into yard work, decorating or housework. We care more about our hobbies and television. It takes a lot of money and effort to maintain something beautiful. Some of my neighbors work hard to make their yards and interiors look beautiful, on the outside and inside. What’s funny is some of them only make the effort on the outside, or just the inside. I’ve always envied my friends who make their personal environment beautiful. Take this as a thank you.
You’d think with seven billion people everything on this planet would look clean and tidy, if not aesthetically elegant. Maybe it’s too easy to find beauty on our flat-screen televisions.
What’s also fascinating to contemplate is how beauty pops up in nature through random nonintelligent design. Of course, the concept of beauty is something that might only exist in our species. Does any other animal stop to admire the rose? Maybe beauty only resides in human civilizations because of anti-entropic efforts. We’re all at war with entropy, and only some of us use our limited energies to create beauty.
I’ve read that color doesn’t exist in reality, but it’s something our brains adds. I’d hate to think this is true. I wonder what the other animals and insects see.