History as Religion
In a secular age that is bereft of the overwhelming, sweeping influence of religion, a gap is left behind that needs filling. Whilst the overthrow of religion is a necessary evil for the sake of a liberal, scientific, democratic society, it nonetheless deprives us of a many numinous needs. And I’m not even talking of spirituality.
Morality. Community. And most importantly for me: art. Ever since the death and burial of religion in mainstream culture, art – specifically visual arts and architecture, not so much literature – has suffered. When you build a church or a temple you need to imbue it with a sense of the divine in order to inspire worshippers. You don’t need such grandeur when building a hospital or a train station.
So where else can we turn to for artistic and philosophical inspiration? Isn’t history an obvious choice? Now of course we can never know history with complete accuracy. The same as with religion. But that is even more attractive; it tantalises the human imagination. We know Napoleon existed, but we don’t know what he said, or thought as he led his troops at Waterloo. We know Julius Caesar was assassinated, but can we truly know his murderer’s deepest intentions? In these gaps between the known and unknown art can penetrate and create something tantalising and meaningful.
We can also learn from history – learn from ancestors who, unlike religious holy men, never sought to teach, but their mistakes, their triumphs, their reflections and actions are a virtual reality experiment for us living today. Therefore history can be a source of morality. Not in the Christian sense. History is too nuanced to give us qualitative answers. It will never tell us thou shalt not kill. But it can offer us a morality akin to the lives of the Greek gods, beings who they themselves were cruel and imperfect, yet still cautiously worshipped by their followers.
And what about unifying society, people? Is there no greater rallying cry for the patria than knowledge of history? It is also a rational rallying cry, one that opens our eyes to the cosmopolitan, nuanced and diverse nature of our paths to the present. When the English celebrate being English they celebrate being Britons, Romans, Angles and Normans. They can feel pride in their history but also brotherhood with neighbours near and wide with whom they share a common ancestry.
Personally, as a writer, I find history to be a great conductor for dialogue. When Herodotus, the father of history, wrote his Histories, he not only digressed on all manner of topics, showing history’s polymath power, but also indulged in a bit of, as literary critics might call it today, magic realism. He re-told stories that were told to him across his travels, acknowledging he couldn’t vouch for their veracity. For him history writing was also travel writing, fiction, philosophy and drama.
As much as I deplore the iconoclasm of today, I welcome people who want to topple statues of slave-owners and marauders, it shows they are willing to dialogue with our collective past, use it as a means to drive ourselves forward. But let’s not idealise our past. The great men and women of the past are not gods, we do not worship them, but we are their heirs, heirs of imperfect parents whose destiny is nonetheless intertwined with our own.
What Sun Sets Over the Duomo?
Brunelleschi’s dome is bathed in faint golden light, the sky around it rose-tinted, tired, the air is full of the heady summer. All around the city feels like it’s getting ready for a siesta. It will only recover its energies in the full embrace of night. Every night Firenze undergoes a death and resurrection, a daily Easter cycle, and for a while, we were a part of it.
Wherever you go in the city centre, the dome watches over you. It is the city’s second sun. The masterpiece of Brunelleschi was the tallest dome built up until that point since the Pantheon. Its bright dome, though not a perfect sphere, represented the circle. Ever since the time of Pythagoras and Plato the circle bore special significance; it is an infinite shape, perfect in every respect, and thus it represented eternity. A concept so important to Christian theology that it came to represent God who is himself eternal and perfect.
For Plato shapes and forms were simulacra of universal ideas. When a sculptor depicts Aphrodite he doesn’t merely create an image of the goddess, but her very essence. So Brunelleschi created not a dome, but God himself. Or at least some essence of his universality. The dome is a trinity in its own right; it is the Father, for it is perfect and eternal, it is the son for it represents God here on earth, and it is the holy spirit because it inspires worshippers to seek out God.
All this achieved by man.
When I was stood there, beneath the dome, as night slowly escaped from its cage and let itself loose upon the city, I wondered, if I were to ask any Christian walking by me what he imagined when he thought of heaven, I imagined he would probably mention vast gardens, rivers of milk and honey, angels, eternal bliss. But that very notion felt abhorrent to me.
When I looked at the body of the cathedral and saw how black its façade had become after years and years being exposed to fumes, I thought: surely, this is more heaven than heaven.
Mankind created his own heavenly ecosystem. It’s not perfect – not even the dome is perfect, for it’s not a true circle. But down here, on earth, in Firenze, we don’t crave perfection or the eternal – we crave beauty. And beauty is all the more tantalising for its imperfections. The Japanese call it wabi sabi, the aesthetics of the incomplete and imperfect. The dome, the cathedral, all the men and women around me, me, we are all imperfect, all transient, incomplete; and I wouldn’t have it any other way!
When a loved one dies he or she instantly achieves perfection. When you’re at a funeral you’re in the presence of a nouveau demi-god. He was so kind. She was so energetic. He really helped me when I was young. Oh she was such a joker. If ever a bad trait is brought up it is always in jest. “Oh her complaining used to give me headaches”. Then the apologetic tone. “I’m going to miss that.”
The same kind of purification also happens with buildings, cities and sites that fall into ruin. When I walked along the Forum of Rome, a street littered with haunting ruins, crowned by the colosseum, I felt in absolute awe; an awe that spread predominantly through my imagination. I couldn’t help wonder what it must have been like to walk through the Forum in its prime, in its buzzing heyday, or to actually witness a gladiatorial fight in the colosseum.
In truth, was the Forum, the colosseum, and other such ruins a disappointment in their prime? The Forum, if you read detailed descriptions of it during Augustine’s time, sounds incredibly gawdy, over-the-top and egocentric. It was, in a sense, the equivalent of modern-day Dubai.
None of us would call Dubai mysterious, haunting or elegiac, would we? But what if – heavens forbid – a record-breaking tsunami were to submerge Dubai and people visited it a hundred years from now, wouldn’t they romanticise it too? Wouldn’t they wonder how people used to live there, how glamorous and elegant it all was, and how, naturally, better they were, more civilised than current times?
Why do we do this, to people, to cities, why are we so attracted to ruins? Whenever we hear a historian tell us, listen, Pompeii was actually just a provincial little harbour town, there was nothing special about it at the time – we almost get offended. Like someone daring to say a bad thing about the recently deceased.
I think it has something to do with the tantalising mystery ruins provide us. No matter how much you know about the Forum, how much you read up on it, maybe even watch a film that brings it to life, it will always remain elusive, out-of-reach, a curiosity. In a way it can be compared to the allure of a naked woman. When a woman, in the throes of erotic play, is fully naked, the allure is gone – sure, the wonder is there, but there is no mystery. Whereas, when a woman is in her underwear, teasing but not quite there, your mind is in raptures; what does she look like, what awaits me, this is fantastic. The sense of expectation is at times grander than the fulfillment. Or, to use a related cliché, the journey is more exciting than the destination.
Is that what goes on in our minds when we’re awed by ruins? That sense of anticipation and imagination tantalising us in a way a fully-available, naked city never could? Are ruins sexy?