Wednesday, October 22, 2008

from the ground up

22 October

I happened to be walking this afternoon along the quais, looking up at Notre-Dame de Paris and thinking (once again) what a magnificent thing it is, despite all the efforts of the touristo-consumer culture to reduce it to a cliché of itself. What suddenly struck me, though, was a thought of a different order. What an unimaginable quantity of human labor is embedded in all those stones! Think of it: with nothing but hand tools and the most rudimentary machines, how slowly they must have cut and placed and mortared the stones, one after another, day after day. And in the first generation, how they must have known how little they would ever see of the built structure, how little of it their stone-cutter sons would see, or even their stone-cutter grandsons. Yet still they cut, placed, and mortared stone after stone, accumulating value through the decades and centuries. And finally, what value!

Perhaps it wasn't the first time I had thought these thoughts, but recent events have allowed me to appreciate them in a new way. Gazing up at Notre-Dame, I began to think about the tower of world finance, that bizarrely cantilevered structure whose trillions in hypothetical 'value' rest on so relatively small a base of real economic fact. (Is it $60 of speculative capital for every $1 of productive capital? Does anyone even know?) And the sheer speed  of it, which generates such huge profits by means of unbelievably rapid turnovers in finance capital through transactions that fly with electric speed around the globe. And still this monstrous and denatured construct continues to be buttressed on every side by the confident assurances of leaders and prudent commentators of every stripe, as if by some prodigy of faith we can will this engineering fantasy to stand ... for how much longer?

So I'm looking at the cathedral, thinking about all those stonemasons, and more and more I'm tempted to cry out like Ezra Pound against USURIA and on behalf of artisanry and the value of craft. But no, the Middle Ages are over, and I'm not so moved by nostalgia. No, we need to master the artisanry of our own age, in order to build a Notre-Dame that will address our modern needs for the centuries to come. The task will be slow, and the ones who started it have already died without seeing even a transept--indeed, their first structure collapsed not long ago, as did more than a few Gothic experiments in their own day. But that mustn't discourage us from continuing to cut the stones and lay the foundation for the new society, for a new social order built from the ground up,  built by ordinary workers to serve everyday human needs, built with love, not greed, built--like Notre-Dame in its day--to shelter us all in its compassionate embrace. 


At October 22, 2008 at 6:31 PM , Blogger David said...

One of the traps one must not fall when dealing with the Middle Ages is to think that their equipment (and other things) primitive. It was not. Just not industrial, but definitely not primitive.

Also, one must not forget that if the cathedral took so long to be built, it was mostly because of budget constraints and also because cathedrals were not build for individuals (not even for human beings) but for God, so they took their time in a way that's not so different from the reasons the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is also taking forever to be finished.
Remember that at the same time as cathedrals, castles were being built with the same technology (but not the same kinds of "property developers") within a year usually, because they needed to be lived in and used as soon as possible.

At October 22, 2008 at 9:28 PM , Blogger Alfie said...

Ah, craftsmanship, something I'm comfortable commenting about. Reading Helen and Scott Nearing's account of building a stone house in Vermont (wasn't he a lefty political scientist from NYC?), the work of John Ruskin and William Morris and their common interest in hand made, carefully crafted objects, led me in part to my profession.
I think your blog is a blend of art, politics and fine craftmanship. Thanks for sharing your experience.

At October 23, 2008 at 10:56 AM , Blogger Eric Brandom said...

I am reminded of this little vignette from Room With A View:

"Remember," he was saying, "the facts about this church of Santa
Croce; how it was built by faith in the full fervour of
medievalism, before any taint of the Renaissance had appeared.
Observe how Giotto in these frescoes--now, unhappily, ruined by
restoration--is untroubled by the snares of anatomy and
perspective. Could anything be more majestic, more pathetic,
beautiful, true? How little, we feel, avails knowledge and
technical cleverness against a man who truly feels!"

"No!" exclaimed Mr. Emerson, in much too loud a voice for church.
"Remember nothing of the sort! Built by faith indeed! That simply
means the workmen weren't paid properly. And as for the frescoes,
I see no truth in them. Look at that fat man in blue! He must
weigh as much as I do, and he is shooting into the sky like an
air balloon."

At October 23, 2008 at 2:47 PM , Blogger brent whelan said...

David: I appreciate your historical adjustment. I don't really know a lot about the construction of the cathedrals though some of what they were aiming for--light, lofty space--was less interesting to castle-builders. But the comparison is instructive.

Hello, Alfie: I too was quite taken with the Nearings. He was indeed a socialist economist, blacklisted in the 20s, I believe--thank goodness, or we wouldn't have had "Living the Good Life." Now there seems to be a resurgence of that craft in Vermont (Bill McKibben's writings are my source.) As a would-be craftsman I appreciate your praise from the horse's mouth.

Eric: Delightful!


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