(I decided to split my original post for ease of navigation. Continued from part one.)
Further north in the Hudson, as the train passes through the marshes at Cold Spring and then hooks along the edge of Hudson Highland Park on its way to Beacon, the passenger will see something striking through the window. Standing on an island in the Hudson, conspicuous and incongruous, is a castle.
Or perhaps I should say a former castle, since it is distinctly a ruin now. Only the outer walls remain, its insides gutted and empty. Ivy climbs up the surface and the green shade of trees can be seen through the empty window frames. Even so, it is an impressive sight, with its battlements and crenellated walls standing proudly over the Hudson, like something out of a fairy tale.
But it is clear, upon reflection, that this structure could never have been an actual castle, despite appearances to the contrary. Putting all tactical considerations aside—castles were obsolete during almost all of our history—its brick walls are thin and high, totally unsuited to defensive architecture. (To see what I mean, visit Castle Clinton in Battery Park, which has thick, squat walls, durable and difficult to hit with canon fire.)
Like many passengers on the train, I idly wondered “What is that?” as we passed, my mind drifting off to remote possibilities. When I asked my mom later, she told me that it was built by a rich American with a European wife, who wanted to make her feel at home in the New World—or at least, that’s the story she heard. I was satisfied with this rumored explanation for a time. But upon my return from Spain, I decided to dig a little deeper into the castle’s history. And, as so often happens, the truth is far more interesting than the myths.
Unless you have a boat and don’t mind being penalized for trespassing, the way to visit the castle is on a tour with the Bannerman Castle Trust. These tours depart from either Newburgh or Beacon, two historic towns that are themselves worth visiting. You can choose to go by ferry or kayak. (In a recent homicide case, which made national headlines, a woman was convicted for criminally negligent homicide when she left her fiancé to die in the Hudson after his kayak capsized near Bannerman Island. I took the ferry.)
Beacon is especially convenient for those traveling by train, since the dock is right next to the Hudson Line station. My first visit to Beacon was to climb Mt. Beacon (or Beacon Mountain, take your pick). Standing at over 1,610 feet, or 467 meters, it is the highest peak of the Hudson Highlands. Not very tall, I know, but the climb up is surprisingly steep and arduous; the view, however, is worth it. There are even some ruins—remains of the ski resort that used to occupy its summit. Now, only a shattered brick building and some rusted machinery, used to haul cable cars up the mountain, are left of this vacation spot.
Beacon is most known, however, for another rehabilitated place. Dia:Beacon is a museum of modern art housed in a former Nabisco box-printing factory. Unfortunately, I have yet to go, but I plan to. There are also a few great restaurants in Beacon. A recent NYTimes article singles out Meyer’s Olde Dutch and Kitchen Sink Food & Drink.
In all this, you can get a flavor of the Hudson Valley’s history. Previously a thriving industrial center and a destination for vacationers and resorts, places like Beacon saw a period of decline as other destinations became more appealing and as factories closed throughout the Hudson. Now, Beacon is on the rise, reborn as a kind of hipster paradise of local food, modern art, and scenic trails. And with the tour to Bannerman Castle thrown in, Beacon is a real jewel on the Hudson.
Our tour left at two in the afternoon. About forty people lined up at the water, and then crossed a wobbly dock to board the ferry. As I said, the tours are given by Bannerman Castle Trust, the same organization that is responsible for the castle’s preservation. They are a genial and jovial bunch who obviously enjoy what they do.
The boat began its short journey to the island. To our left we could see the Newburgh-Beacon bridge, a surprisingly pretty cantilevered steel construction. It was a sunny day and the river was full of boats. Jet skis and cigarette boats zoomed past, making a terrible racket, and kayakers waded in the shallows. Along the way, we passed two antique vessels, a Mississippi paddle wheeler and a sail sloop, and all the passengers waved to each other—people are generally friendlier at sea, I suppose. (The sloop was the Clearwater, the boat built as part of Pete Seeger’s campaign to clean the Hudson.)
The castle seemed to rise out of the sea as we neared. By its juxtaposition, the Hudson Valley was transformed into an alpine lake or a Scottish loch in my eyes. We docked and shuffled out, and the tour guides split us into two groups. Thus commenced an excellent two-hour tour, which explained a history that was far more interesting than I dared hope.
Though commonly known as Bannerman Island, its true name is Pollepel Island. ‘Pollepel’ is one of those place-names that baffle explanation. Our guide told us that his preferred hypothesis was that the island was named after the Dutch word for a wooden spoon, which was also the name for the contraption that deposited misbehaving sailors on the island as punishment. There is also a legend about a girl named Polly Pell, who was stranded on the island and rescued by a brave lad, who she then married—a story which, like all tales of romance, our guide assured us is baseless and false.
In any case, the really interesting history of the island begins in 1900, when it was purchased by Francis Bannerman VI (1851 – 1918).
Bannerman has one of those appealing, Andrew Carnegie, rags-to-riches stories from the nineteenth century. Like Carnegie, Bannerman came to the United States from Scotland, a poor boy in a poor family. After a series of odd jobs, his father ended up in the scrap industry. Then, when the Civil War broke out, Bannerman’s father went to fight for the Union side, forcing the younger Bannerman to quit school and work for the family business. At night, he made extra money by traveling around the New York harbor in a little rowboat, using a hook to dredge up chains and rope that ships had sloughed off into the water, in order to sell them for scrap.
Later, the younger Bannerman started his own scrap company. He found a profitable—and at the time entirely novel—avenue for business in selling old military equipment. You see, after a war is concluded, all sorts of goods—rifles, swords, bayonets, canons, black powder, uniforms, and even canned foods—can be purchased very cheaply. Then, when another war breaks out, it can be sold at lower prices than new equipment, while still making a nice profit. Bannerman didn’t only sell to bellicose governments, however, but became a leading supplier to collectors, bands, vaudeville acts, rodeos, movie producers, circuses, and theater groups. Bannerman’s illustrated catalogue are still regarded as the gold standard by collectors of antique war equipment.
After doing business in several different locations in Brooklyn, Bannerman opened his main shop in Manhattan, at 501 Broadway. But the city government very sensibly decided that it was unsafe to have so much military equipment, including several tons of explosives, in the middle of a major city; so they made him move it out. This is why Bannerman purchased Pollepel island for his armory—it is isolated and therefore safe. The location had another advantage. Since the island is in full view of the train, and since the Hudson, at that time, was crawling with merchant ships, Pollepel was an excellent place to advertise his business from. Hundreds of potential customers would be passing by each day. This is also why Bannerman invested in such ornate architecture. A castle is certainly more eye-catching than a billboard.
Bannerman died in 1918, of “overwork,” as the New York Timesobituary said, using one of those euphemisms of the previous era. At the time, he was donating large amounts of equipment to the Allies fighting the First World War. His business model became seriously compromised a few years earlier, when a change in the laws imposed stricter regulations on the trading of explosives—which is good news for the rest of us.
If Bannerman had lived two years more, he would have seen the wisdom of the New York City government in banishing him to the island. For in 1920, one of the powder houses blew up. It was a massive explosion, reportedly breaking windows for miles in all directions—or so said our guide—and blowing a chunk of the wall hundreds of feet across the Hudson onto the train tracks, blocking the train for hours. Bannerman’s wife, Helen, narrowly avoided death (the hammock she had been laying on was hit by flying debris, but she had just gone inside), and her eardrums were ruptured by the shockwave.
Under the direction of Bannerman’s sons, the business carried on for a time, until eventually, in 1967, the island was purchased by the State of New York for parkland. Despite the family’s attempts to sell off their massive store of supplies, there was still much left, some of which was taken by the Smithsonian Museum. The island was opened to the public the next year. But then the next phase of damage to the island occurred. In 1969, the buildings caught fire in a colossal blaze, perhaps an act of arson, destroying everything except the outer brick and concrete walls. After that the island was off limits to the public, for the sensible reason that the remaining structures were unstable and could collapse.
Many years later, in 1993, the Bannerman Castle Trust was founded, which worked with the State of New York to preserve and promote the castle. They have made great strides. Kayak tours, hard-hat tours, and finally, in 2003, walking tours were introduced. The dock where the ferry lands and the stairway that leads up to the island were built under their direction, as was a bridge connecting the two highest peaks of the island (which cadets in West Point helped to construct). They also organize volunteer teams of gardeners, who have created some really splendid gardens on the island. And this is not to mention the historical work.
Thankfully, nobody was hurt when, in 2009, a big section of the outer walls collapsed. To prevent further damage, the walls are held up by long metal braces. Still, it’s worth asking how much longer the structure will last without substantial repairs.
Despite the explosion, the fire, and the collapse—and partially because of them—the castle is magnificent. For me it was a dreamlike experience to be standing near it, since I have been fantasizing about visiting this island since I first laid eyes on the ruin. The façade of the building has many charming architectural ornaments, such as the semispherical balls that run along the top. A resourceful man, Bannerman used vintage bayonets to reinforce the concrete.
The castle isn’t the only structure on the island. On the second highest point—Bannerman was afraid of lightning strikes, so he didn’t build on the highest—is the house in which he and his family stayed. This building was only very recently rehabilitated; only a few years ago, it was covered in ivy. The house is built in the same vein as the castle, a fanciful exterior concealing a homey interior. Now it is a sort of mini-museum, full of old images and informational panels.
In the water surrounding the island, there are still further remnants of Bannerman’s business. During the island’s heyday, Bannerman constructed an artificial harbor, or breakwater, around the island. Now only a few stone towers remain, peaking out of the water. Doubtless more are submerged just under the waves, a hazard for passing boats.
The Bannermans only stayed on the island during summers. But a superintendent, Leonard Owen, stayed all year long; and his daughter, Eleanor, grew up on the island, commuting to school by sled during winter. Two of the historians of the island, Barbara and Wesley Gottlock, recently turned her memoirs into a children’s book. (These two authors also collaborated on the Images of America book on the island, which I relied on for this post.) Bannerman’s daughter, Jane, is still alive and active in the Trust.
Well that’s the story, or at least the quick version. When I began learning about these ruins, I had no idea that they would contain so much history. Perhaps I should stop being so surprised that the world, once examined, is a tremendously interesting place. Ruins are not just food for the imagination. Every ruin, even the humblest, is the product of human hands, and bears the traces of humans dreams and disappointments.
(I have broken up my original post into two separate posts, for ease of navigation. You can find part two here.)
The train ride on the Hudson Line, from Manhattan to Poughkeepsie, must be one of the most scenic in the United States. The ride has both natural and artificial beauties along the way. The Hudson Valley itself is magnificent, with the palisades across the shimmering waters; and this is doubly true in autumn, when the trees turn their fiery hues. Occasionally you pass a sail boat or a freight barge in the river, or a team of rowers diligently practicing in the Bronx. The train also takes you under the High Bridge, the new Tappan Zee Bridge, and the Bear Mountain Bridge, three engineering feats. A careful rider can even catch a glimpse of Sunnyside, Washington Irving’s old home. (Irving was very annoyed when they built the railroad right next to his house.)
Among all this, the most striking landmarks along the way are, for me, the ruins. Specifically, two ruins: the Yonkers Power Plant and Bannerman Castle.
Ruins have a power to fascinate that is difficult to account for logically. They are the same structures that exist, in unruined form, all over the place. The difference between a ruin and a proper structure, architecturally speaking, is pure defect: the ruins have lost their integrity and utility. And yet ruins have been captivating the artistic imagination since at least the Romantic era. Their battered and broken forms have provided inspiration for Shelley’s poems, Byron’s travel sketches, and Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings. It was the ruins of Rome that shaped the Renaissance in Italy, and those same ruins that inspired Edward Gibbon to memorialize Rome’s decline and fall.
What is it about ruins that is so compelling? There are many answers. One is that ruins allow us to visualize time. We see how time’s tooth rusts metal, cracks foundations, and crumbles stone. We see what rots away and what petrifies in place. Ruins also allow us catch a glimpse of a world without humans, the world we would leave behind if we all mysteriously disappeared. We can see the natural world slowly reclaiming buildings and walls, as plants and animals invade the empty space. Perhaps we feel what Shelley felt when contemplating the fate of Ozymandias: that humanity’s urge for immortality is futile and vain, since everything eventually decays.
For all of these reasons, and still others, ruins have an undeniable power—as attested by the many photographers, amateur and professional, who go out of their way to document them. This is my little contribution.
The Yonkers Power Plant
The Hudson Valley has been many things since its water began to carve a channel through the earth: wilderness, scenic escape, suburbia.
One hundred years ago, the valley was an artery of industrialization, dotted with factories and warehouses, noisy with barges and freight trains. The Hudson Valley was also one of the great centers of brick production, its soil baked and sold far and wide, which is why so many of its old buildings are brick. But we are long past the industrial age, and these buildings no longer house factories or store goods. Nowadays they house fine restaurants, cafés, or even libraries, such as the Irvington Public Library, which is in the old Lord and Burnham factory building.
The most impressive of these old factory buildings is still in use: the Domino Sugar Refinery, in Yonkers. Originally built in 1893, this refinery still produces three million pounds of sugar per day. It is one of Domino’s three major refineries, the last major sugar refinery in the Northeast, and a major source of employment within Yonkers. With an old, hulking brick building standing aside newer metal conveyer belts, this refinery is the sister of the more famous one in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which closed in 2004 and was mostly demolished in 2014, except for some buildings given landmark status.
But the grandest ruin of the industrial age sits a few miles north. This is the Yonkers Power Plant, which stands on the river side of the local Glenwood train station. With its smokestacks scolding the sky hundreds of feet in the air, the plant is hard to miss. I often saw it on my commute to the city and wondered, what is it doing here? Why was there such a massive building rotting, empty and neglected, by the side of the tracks?
The answer comes down to power. When the trains began running in the 1840s—connecting faraway places and disturbing Washington Irving’s peace—they were running on steam. By the early 1900s, the railroad was prepared to switch to electricity, using the newly designed third rail. The problem was that, at the time, the municipal electrical grid was not powerful or dependable enough to supply the power. Thus the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad, which owned the Hudson Line back then, built their own power plants. The Yonkers Power Plant was situated along the river for several reasons: to be close to the tracks, to take advantage of the water to cool the machinery, and to make it easy to supply the plant with coal, which was delivered by ship.
The power plant was built by the architectural firm, Reed and Stem, who also collaborated on Grand Central Station. (Charles A. Reed was related by marriage to the president of the New York Central railroad, which doubtless helped him get commissions.) The plant opened in 1907, and ran on coal, which was brought by barge to the boiler room below. The steam generated by the boiler was used to power several massive turbines on the floor above. This power, generated in alternating current, was changed into direct current for the trains by rotary converters. (These rotary converters, by the way, are the only heavy machinery still in the factory; the rest was sold for scrap metal.)
By the 1930, it no longer made financial sense for the railroads to be in the power business, so in 1936 the plant was sold to Edison Light and Electric (a subsidiary of Con Edison) and converted to run on oil. This was not a long term solution either, since the plant’s relatively small size (relative to more modern power plants, that is) made it inadequate to New York’s massive power needs. So in 1963, the plant was closed. It was eventually sold to a private owner, who mostly let nature and teenagers have their way. The plant acquired the name “Gates of Hell,” for supposedly being the place where gangs held ritual inductions. Over the years, it became overgrown and covered in graffiti (some of it quite good). Meanwhile, proposals to transform the plant into apartments did not pan out.
(By the way, I am mainly relying on the excellent website, Hudson Valley Ruins, for this information. Their page on the power plant also has many great pictures.)
Most recently, the power plant was purchased by an entrepreneur named Lela Goren, who announced a plan to convert the plant into an arts exhibition center. The building will be renovated in two phases, which will cost $150 million all together, and finished sometime in the next decade. Work began in 2013. The grounds have already been substantially cleared of rubbish and debris, and the walls are being stabilized. I am pleased to learn, from this NY Times article, that Goren plans on keeping much of the industrial aesthetic, even the graffiti.
On a sunny summer afternoon I visited the plant for myself. I stepped off the train at Glenwood Station and craned my neck upward at the redbrick wreck. Despite the work the Goren Group had already done, the place is still visibly a ruin. All the windows are smashed; ivy climbs up iron beams; and an eerie silence pervades the building.
Glenwood is a local station, and few people use it. Aside from the old plant, Glenwood’s main attraction is the Hudson River Museum, which focuses on the river’s ecology. That day, I was the only person standing on the platform. A fence surrounds the old plant, covered in “Do Not Enter” and “No Trespassing” signs, assuring the prospective intruder that video cameras are surveilling the property. Even so, standing there alone on the platform, with nobody else in sight, it was difficult to resist climbing into the ruin. I would not even have had to climb the fence, since a stepladder was helpfully leaned up against it. The ruin still has its visitors.
But I’m no daredevil, so I contented myself with patrolling its perimeter. Yet through the gaping windows I could glimpse the cavernous interior space, which many have compared to a cathedral nave. Indeed, compared with a gothic cathedral, the power plant is an exceedingly light, airy structure, with thin walls and plentiful windows. The towering brick façade, combined with the thin steel girders of the building’s innards, make it seem as if an elephant body is being suspended from chicken bones.
The plant consists of two buildings, the main plant and a substation next door. The substation is where the rotary converters transformed the current from alternating to direct, so the trains could use it; from there the current was sent to the rail tracks. An attractive metal footbridge connects the two buildings. Outside, a metal tower still stands, rusted and overgrown, which I believe used to hold the wires. On the southern side of the station there’s a little park. From here you can see how the station juts out into the Hudson. This must have been to enable the use of the Hudson’s water in the boilers; and, indeed, the boiler room still floods during high tide, I believe.
I can see why Lela Goren saw potential in the plant, since its location is as attractive as the building itself. Across the river you have an excellent view of the Hudson Palisades. Looking northwards, you can see the Hudson Valley all the way up to the Tappan Zee. Looking south, Manhattan comes into view, a silhouette behind the George Washington Bridge.
From this vantage point, with the city in the distance, the river ferrying boats along its glimmering waves, it is difficult to believe that this wonderful brick building was made to simply to supply electricity to trains. It was truly a different time. At its peak, the Yonkers Power Plant could generation 30,000 kilowatts, or 30 megawatts. To put this in perspective, the Indian Point Nuclear Plant in Croton, the Robert Moses Power Dam in Niagara Falls, and the Ravenswood Generating Station in Queens can all generate over 2,000 megawatts. We have come a long way. But unfortunately for us, not one of those is even one-tenth as beautiful as the Yonkers Power Station.
When Washington Irving published “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in 1820, he forever blessed—or cursed—my hometown, turning a modest cemetery in an otherwise unremarkable village in the Hudson Valley into a tourist attraction. Maybe he knew this himself, for he chose to get himself buried in that cemetery, which has since grown to a sprawling size and has gained other prestigious bodies.
One of my cousins told me and my brother, when we were both young and impressionable, that you should hold your breath when driving past a cemetery so that you don’t breathe in the evil spirits. Neither of us were superstitious enough to believe that, but it made for a fun game in otherwise boring car rides. Yet holding my breath for the entirety of the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, as we drove down Route 9, was always a painful challenge. The cemetery is vast—or, at least, it felt vast as I turned red, and then purple, and then blue.
Every year around Halloween, when the fall foliage is at its most vibrant—“It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen,” said a friend from Spain who saw the New York foliage for the first time—this normally sleepy town is overrun with tourists from the city, all of them to see this famous cemetery. The cemetery is a ten-minute walk from the Philipse Manor station on the Hudson Line, making it an easy trip for urbanites. There are free tours in the morning and evening, and on the weekends there are souvenir shops set up at the entrance. In the fall, closer to Halloween, you can buy freshly grilled sausages and drink mulled wine as you inspect the burials. They lock the gates at 4:30 pm daily.
The Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is sandwiched between Route 9, where cars continually buzz by, and the Croton Aqueduct, a trail that runs through the Rockefeller State Park preserve. The cemetery was built around, but is not affiliated with, the historic Old Dutch Church. This is a lovely stone and wooden structure, built in the 1700s near a pre-existent graveyard. The burial grounds of this church, going back to the Dutch ownership of New York, must be one of the oldest in the country. There are still tombstones written in Dutch on the property; and over the years, trees have grown up and nearly engulfed graves within their trunks. The Reformed Church of the Tarrytowns still holds services in the church every Sunday, where the congregation sits on its lovely wooden pews.
The Sleepy Hollow Cemetery itself was established much later than the church, in 1849, and is non-denominational. The website says that Washington Irving had a hand in its creation, or at least its conception. The size of the cemetery is about 90 acres. Thirty-nine thousand people are buried there, about twice as many as the current populations of Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow combined. As an old brochure put it, the cemetery is a veritable city of the dead. And it is still growing. Across a wooden bridge that spans the babbling Pocantico River are the recent burials, where funerals and mourners are most often seen, and where construction equipment still busily digs new graves.
This wooden bridge, pretty and quaint with tree-trunk guardrails, is often mistaken for the bridge from Irving’s legend; but it did not exist in his day. The real location of that bridge is near the Old Dutch Church, where a sign marks its former location. Nowadays the Pocantico River is spanned by a monstrous concrete bridge in that place, which allows the busy Route 9 to cross over the water unimpeded.
When I was in high school, a friend of mine told me that his father, who worked for the cemetery, found the body of a young man who hung himself from the wooden bridge. Indeed, for many years, in the water underneath that bridge, a stone plaque was clearly visible—although unreadable—which seemed to confirm the story. But now the plaque is gone—did it get washed away?—and I can’t find any information about the suicide online, which makes me wonder if the story was true.
The Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is not a somber place. It is as beautiful and inviting as the finest park. I was surprised to learn that, in Spain, cemeteries have no greenery within; they are stone courtyards where bodies are interred in granite shelves and tombs. Our cemetery is almost as heavily wooded as the forest nearby, full of cedars, sycamores, and oaks, European beeches with scarlet leaves, and tiny Japanese maples whose seeds have blown into the park next door and begun to grow in the wild. There are so many bushes and ferns that the cemetery has become very popular with the local deer, who slip in through a hole in the chain-link fence. Once, in the dead of winter, I even surprised a couple of coyotes stalking around the graves, who promptly retreated to the forest.
The graves and mausoleums of the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery only add to its beauty. It is as much a statue garden as a graveyard. The monument of John Hudson Hall (1818 – 1891)—about whom I can’t find a thing—was, according to this site, crafted by the famous Beaux-Arts sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens; and indeed it does have a striking resemblance to one of his works, Amor Caritas. I am inclined to believe that the famous sculptor was involved, considering the extreme fineness and delicacy of the angel’s robe.
The monument to Owen Jones (died 1884), a successful dry-goods dealer in the 19th century, features a life-sized and lifelike statue of the late merchant. Somewhat nearby is a monument to Edwin Lister (1829 – 1889), who owned a fertilizer company. Lister’s monument has a stately bust of the deceased entrepreneur, and an excellent statue of a mournful woman eternally leaning on the grave.
These monuments reminds me of the Pyramid of Cestius in Rome. That pyramid is the pharonic mausoleum of a rich Roman aristocrat, which coincidentally stands near the simple graves of John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley—just as Jones’s and Lister’s graves stand near the simple graves of more famous men. It seems there are two ways of making one’s tomb a visiting place: accomplish something great, or invest in an elaborate monument.
The only statue to be marked on the official map (available for free at the entrance) is the so-called “Bronze Lady.” It is a twice-life-size statue of a seated woman. Her eyes are sad and downcast as she looks mournfully at the mausoleum in front of her. This is the tomb of Samuel Thomas (1840 – 1903), a relatively obscure Civil War General. The sculpture is a work of Andrew O’Connor, Jr., a sculptor of considerable reputation in his day. According to the inscription at its base, it was smelted in Paris by a famous company, the Rudier Foundry, which also made works for Auguste Rodin.
This statue was the subject of a New York Times article called “The Other Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and deservedly so. For several generations now, local kids have been telling ghost stories about the metal woman, reporting that the statue cries and weeps at night. Even when I was in high school, a whole century after the statue was installed, kids told stories about it. The story I was told was that, if you snuck into the graveyard at midnight, spit in her eye, spun around three times, and then looked into the little hole in the mausoleum door, you would be blinded for life. I never tried the experiment, although I have looked through the hole in daylight and wasn’t able to make out anything in the pitch darkness of the tomb. The legends are still going strong, if I can judge by the coins that are frequently deposited on her laps.
At least one more general is buried in the cemetery: Daniel Delavan (1757 – 1835). His military service goes back even further, to the American War of Independence. His actions in that war may not have been remarkable—since I can’t find anything about him—but his grave certainly is. A near life-size statue stands atop a large pillar, tall enough to be seen from my neighbor’s backyard. This pillar is surrounded by still more figures, including a moving sculpture of an angel cradling a crucifix. You can tell how old these statues are at a glance, since they’re so weather-beaten and eroded from the rains and years.
Accompanying its two generals, the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery has a Revolutionary and a Civil War Memorial. The former is rather simple—it was erected long after the war concluded—and consists of a small stone obelisk with the names of the soldiers inscribed. The Civil War Memorial is more impressive, with a bronze statue (now carbonated and green) of a Northern soldier, striding with his musket and bayonet over a platform that bears the names of the fallen buried there. Cemeteries and wars march side by side.
A review of the surnames of the burials here gives a taste of the ethnic makeup of the town in days gone by: Foster, Grave, Heartt, Knower, Bull, Clark, Coffin, Underhill, Newman, Newton, Small, Risk, Hackett, Hyatt. Apparently English was the dominant group—something that is certainly not true nowadays. Most graves have scant information about the people they mark. A name, a birth year, and a death year are the only facts that endure in the stone. There are some exceptions to this. One is the grave of Frederick Trevor Hill (1866 – 1933), which is an attractive plaque installed into a rocky outcrop, that informs us that he served on the American Expeditionary Force during World War I.
The Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is a sea of names, read and soon forgotten. But several famous names stick out. Washington Irving is, of course, the most famous denizen of the cemetery. His tombstone is simplicity itself, a rectangular slab with a rounded top. If flags were not flanking his grave, most visitors would probably walk right by it. A family man in life and in death—he supported his brother and his nieces when they fell on hard times—Irving is buried in a family plot. As the first internationally famous American author, his funeral was a national event. It was the subject of a Harper’s Magazine cover. So many people crowded into the Christ Episcopal Church for the event that they feared the floorboards would break.
After Washington Irving, the most notable person buried in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is Andrew Carnegie (1835 – 1919). Carnegie was apparently confident of immortality, since he did not create an ornate tomb for himself. His grave is a cross, about six feet high, isolated in a little grove. The cross is decorated in patterns that remind me of the Book of Kells. In the little footpath to the grave, there’s a plaque with a small portrait of Carnegie, as well as a list of the institutions he founded.
Carnegie was certainly an inspiring philanthropist, eventually donating 90% of his wealth to various charities. And he had the means to do it. Carnegie was one of the richest Americans who ever lived—and thus one of the richest people in history. A hugely admirable man, Carnegie’s reputation was slightly tarnished by his support of Henry Clay Frick (of the beautiful gallery in New York City) in Frick’s attempt to break the power of the unions in Homestead, Pennsylvania—a conflict which culminated in the death of seven strikers and three strike-breakers.
It is somewhat ironic, then, that the famous union organizer, Samuel Gompers (1850 – 1924), is buried about one hundred feet away. His grave embodies the principles of his life. Even more simple than Carnegie’s, it is a plain gray tombstone. He is not buried in a family plot; the tombstone is set amidst other burials. And it was not paid for by himself or his heirs, but by the union he helped to establish: the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Gompers was a labor organizer, who helped to join the competing guilds and small craft unions into a powerful organization, and his grave is a fitting tribute to his commitment to his fellows.
Up the hill from Gompers and Carnegie is a decidedly immodest tomb: that of William Rockefeller (1841 – 1922). William was the younger brother of the richer and more famous John D. Rockefeller. Notwithstanding his role as second fiddle, he was still fabulously wealthy, since he co-founded Standard Oil with John. William’s tomb is a massive white mausoleum, at least twice as large as the next biggest in the cemetery. The urge that actuated pharaohs to build the pyramids—the urge to monumental immortality—seems to re-emerge whenever wealth is concentrated into the hands of few, powerful men. William Rockefeller’s former residence overlooking the Hudson, Rockwood Hall, is now a State Park. The massive mansion has been torn down, but the stone walls and groundwork remain, and the view is worth the millions he must have paid for it.
Also among the opulent captains of industry buried in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is Walter Chrysler (1875 – 1940). His mausoleum is a kind of neo-Roman structure with Doric columns in front. The mausoleum is located at the very end of the cemetery, its entrance turned away from the road. I must admit that this tomb always strikes me as ugly. Although it emulates a noble Roman temple, it is clearly machine-made, with inhumanly sharp angles; and the gray concrete used in the building is drab and unattractive, especially when compared with the marble originals. My father, a longtime resident of the town, admitted the other day that he has never visited the cemetery. Considering that he is a big fan of Chrysler cars, perhaps he ought to come and give homage.
Near the gap in the chain-link fence, used by deer, coyotes, and the occasional human to pass from the cemetery to the Old Croton Aqueduct, is buried Elizabeth Arden (1878 – 1966), the famous cosmetic entrepreneur and founder of the eponymous makeup company. Arden’s grave is astonishingly modest—so much so that it is very easy not to notice it. She is buried under a tombstone with the name “Graham,” which is her real name (“Elizabeth Arden” is a pseudonym). Looking down at the little plaque, it is hard to believe that, at one time, she was one of the richest women in the world.
A short ways away is the last grave identified on the cemetery map, that of the Helmsleys. Harry Helmsley (1909 – 1997) was yet another fabulously wealthy man, a prominent real-estate owner in New York City whose company once owned the Empire State Building. His wealth notwithstanding, he is nowadays primarily remembered for his second wife, Leona Helmsley (1920 – 2007), the famous “Queen of Mean.” Leona was a sort of proto Donald Trump—a quick-mouthed, tyrannical, arrogant, proudly rich New York real-estate baroness, who is remembered for saying “We don’t pay taxes; only the little people pay taxes.” This quote was brought to the public’s attention during a trial for tax evasion, which resulted in her conviction and imprisonment for 19 months (the rich always get light sentences, mysteriously).
The Helmsleys’ mausoleum is very similar to Chrysler’s—a Roman inspiration—except that it is slightly bigger. I find this tomb almost equally unattractive; but if you walk up to the door and peer through, you can see a lovely stained-glass window on the other side of the structure, with an image of the Manhattan skyline illuminated in the darkness of the tomb.
As you can see from these examples, the tombs we build for ourselves can say a lot about our values. Our graves and mausoleums represent our stance on posterity. Carnegie wanted to be remembered for his charity; Rockefeller, Chrysler, and Helmsley for their power and wealth. Gompers apparently paid little heed to his grave, perhaps feeling that his work was more important than his immortal reputation. For many of us, I suspect, our anxieties about our posthumous reputation stems from anxieties about the ultimate value of our work. Compare, for example, the tombs of Owen Jones and Washington Irving. The dry-goods dealer invests enough money to preserve his likeness for future generations, while the lionized writer can rest easy in under a plain headstone.
To the eyes of a cold logician, graveyards are nonsensical places. Why invest precious space and hard-earned money on a stone over a dead body? Why place bodies in expensive coffins that delay decomposition? Surely, it would be more sensible to bury our dead in unmarked mass graves, just like they do on Hart Island, and let them return their nutrients to the soil. Why build a monument or preserve a dead man’s name? The dead can make no use of their reputations; they are deaf to the tears of their relatives, and are well beyond caring whether they are remembered or not.
But I suspect that few among us could be so “sensible.” For death is not just a problem of logistics, expense, and disposal: it is an existential problem. Every culture that has ever thrived has had to confront the problem of death in some way. How can we reconcile human finitude with human striving? Why invest in the future if, inevitably, we won’t be a part of it? Death is traumatic, not just to friends and family but to communities. There must be communal rituals for death, acceptable stages of grief and routines of mourning, if a culture is to persist. These rituals allow the community to rally around the afflicted and to help pull them up, and allow the grief-stricken to put their pain in a wider context. Seen in this light, cemeteries are eminently sensible places.
Both Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and the legends that grew up around the Bronze Lady illustrate something the anthropologist Victor Turner said about rituals. Rituals create what he called “liminal” spaces, spaces of transition and transgression, where boys can be girls and where social norms can be flouted, and where the living and the dead can mingle. These psychological “spaces” are essential for great transitions: from single to married, from boy to man, from living to dead. Cemeteries are an example of such liminal spaces, a meeting ground for this world and the next, which is why we call them “haunted.” Haunted places allow mourners to make “contact” with the deceased and then to retreat to their normal world. Cemeteries thus play an essential psychological and ritualistic role, essential to the community.
Yet there is an existential danger in death rituals, too. When there is a routine for death, it makes mortality easier to ignore and to push into the background. In a way, rituals remove some of the terror of death by depersonalizing it: every mourner and every funeral follows the same procedure, and every corpse is buried in the same ground. But death is always personal, and can never be routine. For every person is radically unique, and death will only visit you once. And as Heidegger reminded us, when death is ritualized, we risk forgetting that our lives are singular opportunities, limited and unrepeatable, and thus risk living inauthentically. In our quiet moments, most of us feel immortal; and with time stretched out indefinitely before us, there is little pressure to act on our deepest desires.
My own walks through the cemetery illustrates this double dilemma. Most of the time it is easy to forget that the names on the tombstones were, once, actual people, living and breathing, with their own ideas and perspectives and quirks, just as individual as I am. As a result, it is also easy to forget that, one day, I will be nothing more than a name on a tombstone—and maybe not even that. There is, to be sure, something positive in this forgetting. If we went around all day dreading our death, we would be miserable creatures; and if we were constantly obsessed with the potential death of our loved ones, we could hardly form any kind of relationship.
But we do need to be periodically reminded that life is limited, or we take things for granted. Real appreciation of life requires this delicate balance between awareness of our mortality and an absence of crippling dread. An occasional memento mori will suffice, I think, to prevent complacency.
Cemeteries accomplish both functions for us: they give us a place for our rituals, and they serve as perennial monuments of mortality. This was illustrated for me just the other day, as I strolled among the graves. I was drifting along when I noticed a tombstone with toy cars resting on its base. These were the same Hot Wheels that I used to play with as a kid. On the tombstone was a name, and below it the inscription “Beloved Uncle.”
Here was a private tragedy on public display, an uncle mourned by his nieces and nephews, children who lovingly placed these toys on his resting place. My insides twisted into a knot as I looked down on the grave. I felt pity, but also a twinge of dread—the flashing certainty that, one day, I would be a beloved somebody—or even an un-beloved somebody—and that this day might, for all I know, be soon.
The Old Croton Aqueduct trail runs behind my house, and I’ve been walking along its tree-shaded way for well over a decade now. As a kid, I thought “aqueduct” was just a name, until my mom told me that, buried underneath the pebbly ground, there is a tunnel that used to carry water to New York City from Croton, a couple dozen miles north. Even so, it never occurred to me to learn about the aqueduct. This a striking but common phenomenon: we travel to foreign cities and go on tours, but neglect the history in front of our eyes. It wasn’t until I began traveling abroad that I started to realize the scale and significance of the old aqueduct—along with the Brooklyn Bridge and the Eerie Canal, it is one of the major engineering feats of nineteenth-century New York—and so I set myself to investigate it.
The first step was to walk the whole thing. This is not an easy stroll. The original aqueduct ran about 40 miles from the Croton Reservoir down to Manhattan. The water first reached the Receiving Reservoir, which is now the Great Lawn in Central Park, and then traveled further along to the Distributing Reservoir in Midtown Manhattan on 42nd Street. On this spot now stands the iconic main branch of the New York Public Library, and you can still find remains of the old reservoir’s foundation in the library basement. An imposing structure inspired by Egyptian architecture, this distributing reservoir used to be something of an attraction. People would come to stand atop its walls, for what was then one of the best views of Manhattan.
After the aqueduct was phased out of service in the 1960s, a large chunk of the land—26.2 miles of trail, to be exact—was donated to New York State, to form a historic linear park that stretches from Croton, through Ossining, Scarborough, Tarrytown, Irvington, Dobbs Ferry, all the way down to the Bronx. I didn’t manage to walk the whole way, but I walked most of this distance, first going south to Yonkers and then north to Croton.
For most of the way, the Old Croton Aqueduct is a dirt or grass path, about ten feet wide or narrower, with a well-worn channel in the middle. It goes through some historic areas, taking the walker alongside the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, through the park of Lyndhurst (former residence of Jay Gould, railroad baron), and near Sunnyside (former residence of Washington Irving), and into the wonderful Rockwood Park (former residence of William Rockefeller). The trail is not always so scenic; sometimes you are basically walking through people’s backyards, and there are a few intervals where you have to exit the trail and walk through a neighborhood to get to the next stretch.
The walker will notice a few structures along the way. The most common are the ventilators, which are hollow stone cylinders with a shaft that allowed fresh air to reach the water below. These were installed to prevent pressure from building up inside the tunnel. Less frequent are the weirs, square stone buildings with metal sluice gates inside that could be dropped like a guillotine to divert the water in case repairs were needed. (And since the growing population of New York put heavy strain on the aqueduct, they frequently were.) These are situated above rivers, into which the water could be redirected. There is one above the Pocantico River in Sleepy Hollow, another in Ossining over the Sing Sing Kill, and another in the Bronx over the Harlem River.
In Dobbs Ferry stands one of the old Keeper’s Houses, where the aqueduct’s superintendents used to stay. There used to be six of these along the aqueduct, but the one in Dobbs Ferry is the only one that still stands. It is an inconspicuous white house now, but not long ago it lay completely in ruins; the restoration was just completed in 2016, by the combined efforts of the Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct, a non-profit volunteer organization dedicated to the aqueduct, and the State of New York. This house is open on weekends and is well worth a visit. It contains many exhibits about the aqueduct, with historical photos, engineering drawings, and maps, and also has several short documentaries you can watch.
Up north in Ossining there is a stone bridge that carries the aqueduct over the Sing Sing Kill. (“Kill” comes from a Dutch word, meaning “river,” and is used in several place-names in New York.) A few times a year, The Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct give free guided tours that actually bring you inside this bridge. I recently went on one, and I recommend the experience. A group of about two dozen visitors descended through the weir into the aqueduct. The old sluice gate is a rusty mass of metal now. But the aqueduct tunnel itself, made of brick and waterproof concrete, has held up remarkably well. The only marks of wear are some cracks in the walls from running the aqueduct at full capacity. It made me giddy to think that I could walk through that dark and dank tunnel all the way to New York City.
Below this bridge, there is an elevated walkway (a “greenway”) where you can stroll alongside the Sing Sing Kill. This was just opened last year, in 2016, and is astonishingly lovely. From this you can see the spillway, which brought the water from the aqueduct into the river during repairs. As the guide noted, the water would spray out with such force that it scoured the bank on the other side of the river.
From the information available in the Keeper’s House and the Ossining Visitor Center—from permanent exhibitions and documentaries on display—I pieced together the history of this great work. The original aqueduct and dam were commissioned in the 1830s after it became apparent that New York badly needed more water. Outbreaks of yellow fever and cholera killed thousands; and the Great Fire of 1835 destroyed hundreds of buildings, largely because the fire department lacked the water to put it out. Manhattan is an island of marshy ground surrounded by brackish water, and before the Croton Aqueduct was built the only water supplies were local wells which could be easily polluted.
The man primarily responsible for planning and engineering the original aqueduct was John B. Jervis, who must be one of the great engineers of 19th century America. He had political as well as engineering challenges to surmount. The land needed for the tunnel cut through hundreds of properties, mostly farms, each of which required an individual settlement. Meanwhile, the two political parties of the time, the Whigs and the Democrats, were squabbling over funding. Upon completion of the project, Jervis rode in a rowboat through the tunnel all the way from Croton to New York. I don’t know how long it took him, but it takes the water 22 hours to make the journey. This slow speed was intentional, by the way, since it minimized wear on the tunnel.
The largest structure of the original aqueduct stands on the southern end. This is the High Bridge. Opened in 1848, this is the oldest bridge still standing in New York City. It originally resembled a Roman aqueduct, with tall stone arches carrying the water high overhead, just like the famous aqueduct in Segovia. Indeed, one remarkable thing about the Croton Aqueduct is that it uses the same principle the Romans used all those centuries ago—namely, gravity—transporting the water on its 40 mile trip with a slight incline, 13 inches per mile. The bridge had to be built so high (140 feet) to maintain this slope. The water tower Jervis designed still stands on the Manhattan side of the High Bridge, looking like the turret of some bygone castle. (This tower was needed to pump water to some areas in the Bronx, which lay above the Aqueduct’s slope.)
In the 1920s people began to complain that the bridge’s arches were an obstacle to ships traveling through the river, so the middle stone pillars were demolished and replaced with a long steel arch. The bridge was officially closed to the public in 1970, apparently because of vandalism, and wasn’t opened until 2015—an astonishingly long time, if you ask me. (There are some excellent panels on the High Bridge, with illustrations of its history. I have attached the images at the end.)
As you can see from the High Bridge, the scale of the Old Croton Aqueduct is undeniably impressive: stretching about four times longer than the Aqua Appia in Rome (although, to be fair, I think the Romans built several aqueducts longer than the Croton Aqueduct), and requiring whole landscapes to be reshaped. The aqueduct was constructed by 4,000 laborers, mostly Irish, who made a dollar or less for ten-hour days. Having thousands of single men, with plenty of drink available (enterprising farmers began converting their barns into bars), predictably caused some ruckus. But it was a good job for the recent immigrants.
The opening of the aqueduct was something of a sensation. At the time, the Croton Aqueduct was one of the biggest engineering projects in the United States, only surpassed by the Eerie Canal. And the effect of the aqueduct on city life was scarcely less important than the canal’s. With a reliable source of clean water, the city began to expand at a remarkable rate. The original aqueduct was built with a maximum capacity of 60 million gallons a day. The engineers thought this would be enough water to supply the city for hundreds of years. But it wasn’t long until the ever-growing population of New York outstripped the capacity of the aqueduct. Indeed, it was largely thanks to the increased supply of fresh water that the city was able to grow so quickly.
Thus the aqueduct, designed to be used for centuries, was supplemented in 1890 by the New Croton Aqueduct, a larger tunnel that runs parallel to the old one. The Old Aqueduct stopped delivering water to the city in the 1950s. The New Croton Aqueduct is still in use—although it, too, has since been supplanted. The Croton watershed now delivers about 10% of NYC water. The majority of the water comes from the Catskill Watershed further north, ferried to the city by the Catskill and the Delaware Aqueducts. This latter tunnel, by the way, is the longest tunnel anywhere on earth, stretching 85 miles. New York is a thirsty city. (The current daily water supply of NYC is 1.3 billion gallons.)
Not only the original aqueduct, but the original Croton Dam was also replaced in the late nineteenth century. Jervis designed the original dam with an innovative S-shaped spillway to reduce damage from floods. But good luck seeing it now. Today, Jervis’s dam is underwater, submerged under the expanded Croton Reservoir, only visible in times of severe drought.
For my part, I don’t regret this loss, since that dam was replaced by the New Croton Dam—a grand monument of the previous century. Made of cyclopean stones, standing at almost 300 feet tall, and stretching to 2,188 feet (almost the exact altitude of Madrid, coincidently) the dam is still immensely impressive. It is also beautiful, with the stair-like spillway allowing water to cascade down to the river below in an artificial waterfall. This dam was begun in 1892 and completed in 1906. Whole communities—cemeteries, churches, and farms—had to be moved to make way for the expanding reservoir. Standing on top of that dam, hearing the rushing water below you, does a better job than any statistic of conveying how much water a major city like New York needs.
As part of my research, I also read the book in the Images of America series about the construction of the New Croton Dam. The story of this construction is told with dozens of old photographs, with commentary by Christopher Tompkins. You don’t exactly get a linear narrative this way; but the images alone are worth the price. It baffles the mind to think of what these men accomplished—redirecting a river, and erecting a structure 300 feet tall with cut stones, flooding an entire valley and displacing many communities—and all this using technology that looks, to my eyes, scarcely more advanced than what the Egyptians used. That’s an exaggeration, of course: the dam workers had steam shovels to excavate and railroads to bring stone from the quarry. But I can’t imagine how difficult it would have been to move those massive stones in a time before modern cranes, using only wooden derricks and pulleys and counterweights.
It is amazing to me that so much history—an engineering feat and a chapter in the history of New York—lay buried right behind my house, and that I’ve been walking along this trail for so many years, oblivious. Don’t wait until you travel to learn about history, to explore and go on tours. Take Thoreau’s advice: “Live at home like a traveler.”
These images are taken from informational panels on the High Bridge.
This is a continuation on my first post about life in Berlin, focusing on the darker side of the city’s history.
Memory is not passive—either in a person or in a country. We choose what we remember; we can shape how we remember it; and our memories, in turn, shape how we act. History is messy, the truth is neither plain nor simple, and in human affairs there is no such thing as an apolitical fact. Opposing groups emphasize different episodes of history, interpret (or misinterpret) those episodes incompatibly, and sweep aside inconvenient episodes that do not fit their narratives. These narratives are not just background; they provide groups with their identity, giving them a historical trajectory and a goal to strive for. Thus it is not just for the dead, but the living, that we must attend to how history is remembered.
Nowhere is this need more apparent than in Berlin; nowhere can we see more clearly what power historical memory can wield. It is said that knowledge is power, but in history we had better say narrative is power. For the past is past, and not around to refute politicians who twist it to their advantage. The historical past is, to a large extent, a creation of the present; and it is recreated every time a book is written, a speech is delivered, or an article is published in the newspaper. The past that the Nazis created was of a mythic Germany, of a virtuous and heroic people, unduly hampered by foreign elements and racial impurities. The past that the Soviets conjured was of a dark night of bourgeois repression only recently lifted by the liberating proletariat army. As we all know, these narratives gave rise to atrocities—atrocities which, if the narratives had triumphed, we would remember as victories—and thus we are now faced with the task of remembering differently.
For this reason, a trip to Berlin is both horrifying and heartening—horrifying because of the crimes committed there, heartening because those crimes are not being ignored or swept aside. I have mentioned elsewhere that you can visit Madrid and never guess that, less than a hundred years ago, there was a horrendous civil war that ended with mass executions. The same cannot be said of Berlin. Indeed I think Berlin is a model of how historical atrocities should be framed and memorialized. The city has every reason to be proud.
Monuments of Death
The first of these somber monuments I visited was the rather cheerfully named Checkpoint Charlie. The name is really just Checkpoint C (Charlie is the NATO phonetic marker for “C”). Checkpoint Charlie is the most famous border crossing between East and West Germany.
As you may know, defection from East to West was high during the postwar years, particularly among the young and well-educated (not population most countries want to lose). To prevent this, the border between East Germany and West Germany was sealed off, and strict regulations put in place about leaving the country. But for many years the border crossings in Berlin remained much easier to get through (this was because the city was jointly controlled by the four occupying powers), making Berlin a kind of gateway to freedom for many hoping to flee the Soviet Union. All this ended in 1961 with the erection of the Berlin Wall. By that time, East Germany had lost 20% of its population.
In truth the checkpoint isn’t much to look at. It’s a small, white guardhouse with some sandbags sitting out front. There were two men in uniform carrying American flags. I was unsure whether they were actual American soldiers or enterprising men in costume accepting money to pose with tourists. In any case, the most memorable image of Checkpoint Charlie is the sign that says “YOU ARE LEAVING THE AMERICAN SECTOR” in four languages—English, French, Russian, and German. On the other side of the sign, for those entering the American Sector, we are kindly reminded to “OBEY TRAFFIC RULES.”
The official Checkpoint Charlie Museum is nearby. I didn’t go, since I heard mixed reviews. I don’t have anything more to add about this famous landmark, other than that it was strange to be standing in that otherwise entirely ordinary road, and imagine tanks rolling in, diplomats being escorted by soldiers, and the fate of the world hanging on the de-escalation of tensions surrounding this border crossing. In politics, small flames can set off very large explosions. Seen with un-political eyes, Checkpoint Charlie is a shack on a road. Seen with historical eyes, it is one of the axes of world history.
From Checkpoint Charlie it is a five-minute walk to my next monument, the Topographie des Terrors. This is a fairly new exhibit—opened only in 2010—built on the ruins of the old Gestapo headquarters, where their prisoners were tortured and killed. As befitting its name, The Topography of Terrors is an open-air museum dedicated to the history of Nazi atrocities. This history is arranged as a timeline, with plentiful pictures and information panels giving examples and details of the National Socialist regime.
Most of this information will not be new to anyone with a basic knowledge of the Holocaust or the Nazi movement—although familiarity hardly dulls the sickening horror of it all. The museum is more valuable for its ability to convey the atmosphere of the time, especially with the numerous Nazi propaganda posters on display. Nothing sums up an ideology with the stark simplicity of a propaganda poster. We see a hardworking German Aryan worker struggling to work, while weighted down by the lazy inferior races; we see bald-faced incitements to hatred against Jews; we see rallies for the workers at home to fight as hard as the soldiers in the field; and then there are the usual posters warning citizens to black out their lights during air raids and to watch out for spies.
Scattered among the posters are profiles of the fallen. One profile which struck me was of a man with epilepsy, Otto Mathewes, who was put into a sanatorium by his family, sterilized by the Nazis, and ultimately sent to a death camp to be killed. I knew that the Nazis targeted those they deemed racially impure—Jews and Roma—as well as homosexuals; but I did not know that the Nazis would put to death somebody with epilepsy—a treatable disease, or at the very least one that could be managed. For me, as for many, the most perplexing thing about the Nazi movement is how an entire population could be goaded into cooperating with their murderous policies. Most populations, it seems, can be persuaded to go to war, which involves killing outsiders. Yet the Nazis didn’t only wage war, but killed citizens of their own country. Why wasn’t there widespread resistance? Hannah Arendt’s phrase about the “banality of evil” comes to mind; but I suppose this question is not one to be answered with a phrase.
Among the propaganda posters, I found a chart showing the different paths for Nazi youths to follow to become full-fledged Nazi adults—for women, from Jungmädel (young girls) to Mütter und Hausfrauen (mothers and housewives), for military boys from the Hitler youth to the military. Looking at that chart, I feel a mixture of disgust and amusement. Such a regimented society, with caste-like roles and ranks for everyone, is repressive in the extreme. And yet, for all its nefarious intent, this organization strikes me as hopelessly juvenile. Indeed it is even campy, as if the whole country is to be organized like the Boy Scouts. Considering this chart, it is easy to see why many Germans did not consider Hitler a serious threat before he rose to power. His mind was packed full of this stuff—juvenile, campy plans designed to appeal to a boyish desire for ritual, hierarchy, and order. The line between the notions of an oaf and the ideas of an autarch is disturbingly fine—perhaps ultimately just access to power.
The exhibition also includes a model for Welthauptstadt Germania, “World Capital Germania,” the proposed city to be constructed over Berlin after Germany won the war. This plan, drawn up by Albert Speer, is discussed by Robert Hughes in his documentary The Shock of the New as an example of the architecture of power. Everything about the design is meant to provoke awe. The scale is enormous; the proposed dome of the Volkshalle would easily dwarf St. Peter’s and the Pantheon. Again, we see here the big imaginations of little minds. It is the same mixture of a juvenile yearning for order and a boyish admiration of strength that we see in the chart.
Coincidentally, the Topography of Terror is located right next to the longest extant stretch of the outer Berlin Wall. It is little more than a wreck now, so full of holes you can see right through it. That ruin completes the picture of atrocities, giving the visitor a glimpse of what came after the Nazis were defeated.
It is a short walk from the Topography of Terror to the Holocaust Memorial, more properly called the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Designed by the American architect Peter Eisenman, it opened in 2005, and is situated near the Brandenburger Tor. The memorial is strikingly abstract. There is no information to be found, no names of victims, no sculptures or symbols, nothing that can provide the visitor context. Instead, the visitor finds a field of concrete slabs, 711 of them, ranging in height from 8 inches to over 15 feet. These slabs are arranged in rows and columns, slightly askew, and the monoliths grow as the visitor enters into the monument.
I admit that my first impression was one of disappointment. There just isn’t much to look at—just identical grey blocks, stretching out like a miniature city. Is the meaningless abstraction of contemporary art really appropriate for commemorating the Holocaust? But I revised my opinion as soon as I walked into the memorial. The blocks slowly grow until they encompass you and limit your line of sight to four narrow passageways. I felt uncomfortable, even unnerved. It is easy to get separated from friends, and difficult to find them once lost. There is no telling who you will see if you turn a corner. Muffled voices come from all directions. I am not prone to this, but I felt a kind of crushing claustrophobia in the monument, a sense of being hopelessly lost and in danger, and I hurried to get out.
As many have noted, the memorial lends itself to many interpretations. The concrete slabs are shaped like coffins, and the rows of blocks strike many as a graveyard. The gradual increase in the slabs’ height as you walk into the memorial, rising until all lines of vision are cut off, is symbolic of the gradual limiting of the Jews’ options as the Nazis stripped them of rights, property, liberty, and life. The mechanical regularity of the slabs suggests the inhuman efficiency of the Nazi killing machine. But more important than these interpretations is the feeling evoked by the monument, the uncomfortable, suffocating feeling of being trapped. It is a cold and comfortless place, although kids are often found playing hide-and-seek within. Indeed the monument invites use as a playground, and it is easy to imagine people skipping from block to block and dashing through the columns. And perhaps this, too, forms an essential part of the monument, showing us that children can turn even bleak concrete into innocent fun.
The monument does not impress everyone; it has been controversial from the beginning. Richard Brody wrote a piece in The New Yorker criticizing the memorial for being too vague and for not including the names of the victims. (As he notes, the names on display in an information center under the slabs, along with other documents about the atrocity. But this information is not well marked, and both Brody and myself missed it.) More recently there was a social media story about Shahak Shapira, who took pictures of tourists taking selfies in the memorial, and juxtaposed them with images of the holocaust—terming it the ‘yolocaust’. I admit that it doesn’t surprise me that people take selfies at the memorial. Nowadays, people will take a selfie with the murderer who just broke into their house, and spend their final moments counting likes.
For my part, I thought it was a moving and effective work of art, even though I was skeptical at first. While I can see why some criticize the lack of names or context, I think the silence of the memorial is what gives it such emotional power; it is a silence that invites us to contemplate the absence of all those men, women, and children, those who were taken and can never return.
Berlin’s other famous memorial is not within easy walking distance. The Berlin Wall Memorial (Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer) is located to the north, next to another surviving section of the wall. It was opened to the public in 1998, within a decade of the reunification. It is much more “traditional” than the Holocaust Memorial, with explicit messages, historical recreations, and information about the victims. Nearby is the Chapel of Reconciliation, an oval-shaped church made of thin strips of wood—you can see through the walls from the inside—built over the foundations of an older church demolished to make way for the wall. A statue of a man and woman in a desperate embrace reminds us how many families were split by that barrier.
The main attraction of the memorial is a section of the wall reconstructed to look as it would have when it was dividing the city in two. This recreation is bounded by two high steel walls, preventing visitors at ground level from looking inside. The viewer needs to climb a tower across the street, right next to the memorial building, and look down from above. From there you can see that the Berlin Wall was really two walls, an exterior and an interior, both of the same drab gray appearance. It is steel-reinforced concrete, too tall to climb easily, too strong to ram with any normal car. Between the two walls is what was called the “death strip,” an empty area full of gravel raked smooth, with a small road running through the center so that army vehicles could quickly move to different sections. This strip was deadly because any potential escapees would be totally exposed there, easily visible to those in the guard tower nearby. There is no cover from searchlights or from firearms. Street lights kept it constantly illuminated. Caught there, you would be a sitting duck.
Although it was a beautiful sunny evening, and although it is surrounded by green parks and bushy trees, the wall section struck me as inhuman, dreary, and squalid. It is the picture of homicidal efficiency—a barrier designed with intelligence and foresight to accomplish immoral ends. The same question occurs to me here as occurred to me at the Topography of Terror: How could people—presumably normal, neighborly people—be persuaded to build something like this? The sheer absurdity of building a wall to keep people in rather than out, to stop an exodus of people fleeing from their own country, must have struck everyone involved. And yet the wall was built, construction crews dragged the concrete into place, soldiers manned the watchtowers, and government officials devoted time and energy to its maintenance and improvement.
Inside the memorial center are old letters, recorded interviews, and information panels about those whose lives were affected by the wall. There are stories of people fleeing, being caught in the attempt, and getting shot down by guards. One famous escape story is of Wolfgang Engels, who stole an armored personnel carrier and rammed it through the wall, getting shot in the process but making it out alive. East German Soldiers at the wall were instructed to shoot anyone attempting to cross, even women and children. Nevertheless, about 5,000 people successfully escaped; well over 100 were killed in the attempt. Some of the escapees dug tunnels, some even flew balloons—indeed, the last casualty of the wall, Winfried Freudenberg, died in 1989 when he fell from his homemade balloon. Guards on the Western side could not help anyone on the death strip, or they risked being fired on by the East German guards. This led, most famously, to the death of Peter Fechter, who was shot in the death strip and left to bleed to death, as hundreds looked on from both sides.
The last place I visited was the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial, an old Soviet and then Stasi prison. This is situated far away from the other major sites, in the east of the city. But it is well worth the trip. The only way to visit the prison is on a guided tour. My tour guide, a young woman, was excellent—extremely knowledgeable and compelling. According to her, some of the guides are actually former inmates in the prison. In any case, I can say that it was one of the best guided tours of my life. My visit was both informative and moving, and I hope you get a chance to go.
As I said, the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen is a prison formerly used by the Soviets and the Stasi. Before that, it was used by the Nazis as a communal kitchen. When the Soviets conquered Berlin, the building was used hold prisoners—accused Nazi collaborators. The building was not designed for this. The Soviets put their prisoners in the food cellars in the basement—big subterranean rooms with no windows. Conditions for prisoners were atrocious. The cells were unheated and terribly cold in the winter. The Soviets did not distribute clothing to the prisoners, so if they were unlucky enough to be thrown in without a coat, they had no recourse but to freeze. The cells had no bathroom, only a single chamber pot—without even a lid, so the place constantly reeked—that was seldom emptied. Soldiers had no showers, and no medical attention. If memory serves, the guide said they were fed once a day, and poorly. Death from starvation, cold, and sickness were common. Beatings and other forms of torture were used to extract confessions. Conditions were so inhumane that many attempted suicide; but since there was nothing in the cell, no sharp objects or chords, even this was difficult.
Conditions improved somewhat when, in 1951, the Stasi took over. Instead of using the old food cellars, they built an actual prison building. The cells were above ground, with windows, and had a toilet, a sink, and a mirror. The guards didn’t carry guns, for fear that the prisoners might steal one. In the hallway outside the cells, running along the wall, is a chord that, if tugged, sets off an alarm. Prisoners were not allowed to speak to each other, or even exchange glances, outside the cells. According to the guide, the Stasi used psychological forms of torture more often than beatings. Interrogators would try to gain the prisoner’s confidence, to use a mixture of threats and friendliness to get what they were after. Sometimes more stringent forms of torture was used, like sleep deprivation. In any case, prisoners had to sleep with their arms outside the blanket; and guards would come several times a night to shine a light inside the cell, checking that their arms were in view. The only outside recreation they were allowed was in what was called the ‘tiger cage,’ a small enclosure with high walls and a caged roof.
Incredibly, the prison was completely unknown to the public while it was in use, even though it is a large compound in the capital. This is partly why it remains standing in such pristine condition. Almost nobody knew about it; so after the fall of the Berlin Wall, angry demonstrators didn’t come pouring in the gates. Part of the tour included the unmarked van used to pick up prisoners without detection. According to the guide, after the wall fell, former prisoners sometimes bumped into their erstwhile interrogators. In one anecdote she recounted, the interrogator refused to apologize; but in another, the interrogator said he was sorry for what happened.
I have recounted the tour as best as I remember it; but this brief summary does not capture the feeling of standing in those dark cells, seeing the interrogation rooms—eerily office-like—and thinking of all the people who suffered and died here while their loved ones waited in total ignorance of their whereabouts. The whole environment was designed to be dehumanizing, to make life as uncomfortable and as fearful as possible for the inmates.
This completes my short experiences with the somber memorials of Berlin. There is not much more to be said. I left Berlin with a keen awareness of the terrors that took place within recent memory, and with a deep respect for the citizens’ commitment to remembering these terrors. These monuments are built to commemorate crimes, crimes that reveal the lowest depths of our nature. That these monuments were built—in the very heart of the country where these crimes took place—shows us the heights we can rise to.
Here goes another travel post delayed by a year. Now, however, I don’t feel quite so bad, since I learned that the famous travel writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor, wrote his account of his youthful travels over 40 years after the trip itself. So maybe I’m not such a nincompoop after all. (For part 2 of this post, about the ugly history of Berlin, click here.)
Germany in Mind
Germany: The very word looms over my whole conception of the world.
Like so many of my bewildered generation, when I was in high school I spent a lot of time watching television. The problem, then as now, was that nothing was on. In desperation my brother and I often turned to the History Channel. If we were unlucky, Modern Marvels would be on—a show about the history of automobile manufacturing, or how screws evolved from nails, or something similarly dry. (This was before the History Channel became the Conspiracy Theory Channel, and had no programs about ancient aliens.)
The good stuff were the World War II documentaries. Grainy footage of soldiers marching across barren landscapes, the whistling of bombs released from bombers, stupendous explosions and the bright streaks of tracer bullets fired from fighter planes—all these scenes of battle, so captivating to young boys, were mixed up with footage of one man: Hitler. Every documentary was sure to feature that stiff, stern, mustachioed man yelling shrilly, punctuating his pronouncements with jerky gestures.
It is an injustice to the German language that so many people are exposed to it through the oratory of that execrable man. Naturally, the language in that tyrant’s mouth is violent, aggressive, ugly, shrieking, garbled—as were his thoughts. But the abuse of one man ought not to cast aspersions on a whole language. Spoken well, German can be gentle, sweet, and tender.
I fell under its spell from my very first exposure. In the sixth grade we had a language survey, covering bits of Italian, Spanish, French, and German, to see which language we wanted to study. At the end of the term we were asked to rank our favorites. For me there was no question. It had to be German. The language was strangely akin to English, and yet so different in spirit: purer, stronger, more elemental. I put German as my first choice; and because I was required to list a second and third choice, I absently put down Italian and French. This decision came to haunt me later, for it was soon revealed that there wasn’t a German teacher. I took Italian as my main language—which exposed me to lots of excellent food, but which held no appeal to my immature mind.
These vague childhood impressions were soon supplemented by more definite knowledge. In a college literature class I was exposed to Thomas Mann, who soon became my first literary passion, a model of erudition and eloquence that simply dazzled me. Shortly after that, by a complete coincidence, somebody in my a capella group mentioned that he was teaching himself German using tapes; and when I showed an interest, he offered to lend them to me. I snatched at the opportunity; and from the first tape, the long-dormant passion for German was reawakened.
Once again I found myself enamored of the language—the magnificent German tongue, which combines rustic roughness with intensity of thought, earthiness with cerebral density, not to mention seriousness with silliness. (Click here to experience the silliness.) The next semester I enrolled in a German class, even though it had little to do with my major. For my twenty-first birthday I went to a German restaurant in New York City, Hallo Berlin, and ate sausages and sauerkraut and drank Weißbier, and felt absolutely stuffed and happy; and my fondness for the country has continued unabated ever since.
And all this still leaves out the dozens of the figures from Germany’s history—musicians, poets, philosophers, and scientists—who have puzzled my mind and saturated my spirits. From Bach to Beethoven, from Goethe to Nietzsche, from Kant to Heidegger, from Einstein to Weber, the Deutscher Geist has dominated my intellectual and my artistic interests. The horny grammar and spiky consonants of the German language, the labyrinthine fugues of Bach and the devious arguments of Kant, spiced with sour mustard and cooled with foamy beer—all this had combined, since I was in university, to form an impression of the Germans as somehow special. I wanted—no, I needed—to go see Germany for myself. And I finally did, however briefly, with my trip to Berlin.
First Impressions of Berlin
You might say that all this expectation could only lead to disappointment. This is half true. Nothing could possibly match the absurd image of Germany I had built up over the years: a city dominated by high-tech robots giving every citizen hours of leisure, a society of engineers who philosophize in their free time, every one of them relaxing in a beer hall downing Schnapps and singing Lieders in group harmony—it’s absurd, I know, but I really couldn’t imagine Germany being any other way.
The aspect that Berlin first presented to me was rather ordinary. I took a bus from the airport to the city center (Berlin is very well-connected) and I remember looking out the window and seeing: a city. That’s it—not a space-age colony, not a rustic paradise—a city, comparable to Madrid or Rome. But there was no doubt that I was in Germany. The people on the bus couldn’t be anything but German.
It is always a shock coming from Spain to Northern Europe. By and large, Spaniards are shorter, with slightly darker skin, and blacker hair. The Germans are the opposite in every respect: pale, tall, and blonde. (I’m speaking in generalities of course.) Even at a glance, there is no mistaking a bus-full of Spaniards for a bus-full of Germans.
There is also a striking difference in dress. Spanish people—despite their generally open attitude towards public displays of affection (Americans are often shocked by the kissing that goes on in metros and restaurants)—on the whole dress somewhat conservatively. Clothes tend not to be very revealing, either on men or women. (I have reason to believe, however, that this is slowly changing.) If you wear shorts and sandals before June, you will be stared at. What’s more, Spanish people tend to dress more formally than Americans; you can see women wearing elegant dresses on any day in the week—even among friends—and Spanish offices are seas of suits and ties.
Germany, from what I could see in Berlin, is quite different. Indeed I’d say the German attitude towards fashion is far closer to ours in the United States: tank-tops, belly shirts, short-shorts, flip-flops, and every other type of skimpy clothing under the sun is embraced. But there is one major respect in which the Germans differ from Americans: they are not puritans.
You see, compared to Europeans, Americans are prudes when it comes to the body. Flip open a German magazine—not a pornographic one, but any old magazine—and you can see exposed breasts. Advertisements in Berlin feature, not only scantily clad women, but also the exposed male body—hairy, bulging, and thick (see the two examples above). This feature of their culture was revealed to me, in the most literal sense, when I was strolling through the Tiergarten (the central park of Berlin), and found myself suddenly surrounded by naked men lounging on the grass in broad daylight. Part of me was scandalized (think of the children!), but another part was very amused.
Now, I honestly have no idea why Spaniards dress more conservatively but kiss in public, why Germans dress skimpily and sun themselves naked in parks, and why Americans dress skimpily but avoid both kissing in public and public nudity. But I imagine the explanation has a lot to do with religious history.
The city of Berlin apparently has a reputation among Germans. I spoke to a couple of German students a few months before my trip, who told me that Berlin was the poorest region of the country. The city was dubbed “poor but sexy” by its own mayor. According to what I can find, Berlin is heavily in debt and is subsidized by the rest of the country, with the worst education in the country and an abnormally high crime rate. My Airbnb host explained that the city attracted a lot of artists and bohemian types because it’s bad economy made it a cheap place to live. The whole city gives off a hipstery vibe, with lots of street art, outdoor markets, and nifty stores; and like many aspiring artists, the city of Berlin is financially supported by its family.
Aside from its grungy aspect, Berlin is notable for its layout. The city has no discernable center. All the major monuments seem scattered about at random. The city stretches out in every direction without any obvious plan or natural boundary. I believe this lack of apparent center or scheme is due to two major factors: that the city was pummeled into rubble during the Second World War, and that it was rebuilt while it was divided into different zones, each controlled by different countries. (Yet I have just read in Stefan Zweig’s autobiography that Berlin lacked a center even before the First World War, so I can’t say.) The longstanding division between East and West has left a permanent mark on the city.
I said above that my elevated expectations of Berlin could only lead to disappointment. But this was only half true. For everything Berlin lacked in space-age technology and opera-singing metaphysicians, the city made up for with unexpected charm. I felt immediately comfortable in Berlin, in a way that I rarely feel in foreign cities. Everyone I spoke to was friendly; the city felt safe and even cozy, like one giant neighborhood. Hipsters drank beer in the streets and friends bounced a balls in the park. There was a sense of intimacy, of familiarity, which I could not explain but which I nevertheless felt. (I have a friend who tells me he hated every minute of being in Berlin, so clearly this feeling is not universal.) Aside from this feeling of general contentment, I also found that Berlin is full of fascinating history; and this is what I’m here to tell you about.
A Note on Food, Immigration, & Transport
You may be interested to learn that, outside of Turkey itself, Berlin is the city with the highest population of Turks.
This, indeed, was the immigration ‘problem’ German people worried about before the Syrian Refugee Crisis: that there were so many immigrants coming from Turkey, and many of them were not integrating as fast as most people desired. They weren’t learning German and mixing in German society, but living in Turkish neighborhoods speaking Turkish. This was regarded as an alarming development.
Parenthetically, this is an interesting illustration of the different attitudes towards immigration in the United States and continental Europe. For all the xenophobia that has raged in the United States—and now more than in any decade of recent memory—Americans, at least in cities with high immigrant populations, are far more comfortable, on average, with immigrants keeping their language, dress, diet, and so on, than are Europeans. The controversy in France over the burkini, for example, simply could never happen in the United States. We have more than enough islamophobes, thank you very much, but lawmakers wouldn’t even contemplate passing legislation about acceptable forms of swimwear.
Note that this is not because Americans generally have a more positive opinion of Islam than French people do. To the contrary, I think the reverse is probably the case. But in America we do not have such a strong sense of “Culture”—traditional ways of dressing, eating, dating, speaking, and so on, that pervade every aspect of daily life—as exists in, say, France or Germany. Rather, in keeping with our traditional individualism, Americans conceive of choices in dress, diet, love, and speech as based on individual preference rather than having much to do with tradition. There are traditional sectors of American society, of course; but they are traditional by free choice. And no single tradition (except perhaps vague notions of “freedom” and “democracy”) would be accepted by any large fraction of the population.
Now, I should clarify that I am not denying that there is no such thing as American Culture; nor that the French and Germans are not individualistic; all I’m saying is that Americans don’t like to think of ourselves as living in accordance with any culture except the one we choose through our own free will. And if somebody wants to mess with that decision, they can go read the Constitution!
I am getting off track here. Well, the point is that Berlin has a lot of Turkish people. As a result, Turkish food has become wildly popular, and justly so. I once listened to two German students describe in raptures all their favorite kebab spots. The best kebab spot in any city is, apparently, a source of hot dispute among the locals.
If I can join in on this argument, I’d like to advocate for Mustafa’s Kebab. It is not even a restaurant, but a food stand selling different types of kebab. Trust me: go there and order one. All the ingredients are fresh: the crispy cucumbers and carrots, the refreshing feta cheese, the perfectly grilled meat—it is marvelous, simultaneously delicious and surprisingly wholesome, not to mention affordable, which is why there is always a long line. I ate there the first day and then went back the next.
Apart from this heavenly experience, the other famous dish in Berlin is the Currywurst. This is just sausage and fries with a creamy curry sauce. The combination of sausage and curry did not strike me as particularly promising, but I trust the Germans, and I had the meal twice. Both times I thought that, indeed, curry on sausage was odd; but I like curry, and I like sausage, and fries are always welcome. I enjoy it; but it is a greasy, heavy meal, not ideal for physical activity of any kind.
Speaking of avoiding physical activity, I should add a note about public transportation. Unlike in either New York or Madrid, the transport system in Berlin uses the honor code. You are trusted to buy a ticket and to verify it before every trip. But there is no barrier, gate, or turnstile preventing you from getting on. Bus drivers don’t check; the metro and the tram are hop-on, hop-off. It took me three trips on the transport system to figure out that, yes, I was expected to pay (I watched a few dutiful Germans verify their transport cards before boarding).
This prompted me to look up if it was common to avoid paying, since I had already taken three free trips by accident and nobody had noticed. This brought me to this fascinating article. Apparently there is a relatively small but dedicated band of Berliners who daringly ride the metro without a ticket. This is known in German as schwarzfahren (literally, “black going”—what a wonderful language!). But there are risks. Plainclothes officers, known as Kontrolleurs, ride metros and trams all day, randomly checking if people have a valid ticket. If you are caught without a ticket you can get fined for 40€ as a first-time offense. Granted, there is a chance of escaping the car once you see the agents begin checking, but this is far from assured. I took eleven or twelve trips while I was there and never witnessed any check. But for those intrepid souls looking to fight the man and seek perilous thrills by schwarzfahren, be warned.
Monuments of Life
I made one major mistake when visiting Berlin: I didn’t book a tour of the Reichstag building ahead of time. The Reichstag building (the word Reichstag, which means parliament, literally means “kingdom day”) is the current parliament building. It was originally constructed back in the 1890s, when Germany was an Empire, to house the Imperial Diet; it then burned down in mysterious circumstances in 1933, giving the ascendant Nazi party a convenient excuse to start jailing political enemies. After that, the building lay unrepaired and unused during the Nazi era and the Cold War; and it wasn’t until the reunification in 1990 that the building was finally refurbished and put back into use by the current parliament, the Bundestag (Bundestag literally means “federation day”).
Whatever the building’s history, I couldn’t visit it, since you need to book your tour in advance. (Follow this link.) I went up and asked if there were any free spots available, but there weren’t any until Tuesday, the day after I was going to leave. From the outside the building is impressive: a grand palatial edifice in neoclassical style. As I’ve mentioned in my post about Rome, Roman architecture has been adopted worldwide as the architecture of power; and nowhere is this on greater display than in Berlin. The front pediment of the Reichstag building features a Parthenon-esque frieze of Grecian gods surrounds the German coat of arms, an eagle derived from Roman military standards. Under all this is written Dem Deutschen Volk (literally, “The German People,” but the use of the dative “Dem” implies “To the German People”). Apparently, Kaiser Wilhelm II found the democratic ring of these words distasteful. Considering that he was the last Kaiser, I suppose the joke is on him.
The Reichstag building stands near the equally famous Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor). This is another example of Roman-inspired architecture, modeled after the triumphal arches in that ancient city. Its construction was ordered by the Prussian King Frederick William II, to celebrate the defeat of the Batavian Revolution; and like any worthwhile piece of political propaganda, it commemorates a victory that never happened: the revolution was only momentarily delayed, and eventually succeeded.
The gate originally replaced an older, fortified gate in the city walls. (At this point in history, the walls had become obsolete anyway.) Much later, during the Cold War, the Brandenburg Gate came to serve a far more nefarious purpose: to keep the citizens of East Germany in rather than to keep invaders out.
The Brandenburger Tor stands on the erstwhile border of East and West Berlin; formerly, the Berlin Wall encircled the gate in a sinister embrace. During this time, the dual symbolism of a gate, as a barrier or a portal, as a something can divide or connect, gave the monument a special meaning. Reagan gave his famous plea to “tear down this wall” standing before the Brandenburger Tor; and now, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the gate is an enduring symbol of European unity.
Atop the Brandenburg Gate is a quadriga, a statue of Victory being drawn in a chariot by four horses. This statue has its own political history. After Napoleon defeated Prussia in the Battle of Jena (which Hegel famously overheard while completing his opus, The Phenomenology of Spirit), the French marched into the city through the gate, and then Napoleon took the quadriga back with him to Paris. (Rather petty, I think.) The quadriga was returned to Berlin after Napoleon’s eventual defeat. Then, during the Second World War, the gate was smashed up in the fighting, and the original quadriga was almost entirely destroyed; only one horse’s head survived, now on display somewhere in a museum.
Proceeding through the Brandenburg Gate, you reach the Tiergarten (literally “animal garden,” since the park originated as a private hunting grounds for the king), which is the central park of Berlin. The park is huge: at 210 hectares, it is one of the biggest parks in Germany. It is also absolutely enchanting. The paths wind lazily through the park, under overhanging trees, across green fields, past perfectly reflective lakes and the occasional statue or monument, with bikers riding by and friends playing catch (and older German men sunning their naked bodies)—it’s all lovely (except for the nudists). Somehow the Tiergarten combines the unplanned beauty of a nature reserve with the comfort and charm of English gardens; the park is at once wild and tamed. Without a doubt, it is the finest park I have visited in Europe.
(I do admit, however, that the sight of people practicing sports and exercising often puts me in a foul mood. I have never liked sports or exercise; and the thought that people would defile a beautiful park like this with activity aimed only at physical fitness or pleasure, fills me with despair. Parks should be for quiet contemplation and for reading—for improving the mind and achieving tranquility—not for bulking up the body and for inducing meaningless excitement! I know I’m being silly here, but it’s hard to contemplate the meaning of existence with the constant sound of people kicking a soccer ball and yelling at each other. This is not a criticism of the Tiergarten, but of humanity.)
In the center of the Tiergarten is yet another notable Roman-inspired construction: the Berlin Victory Column. Like all victory columns, this one takes its inspiration from Trajan’s Column in Rome. The Berlin Victory Column was commissioned during the 1860s to commemorate Prussia’s victory over Denmark; and when Prussia went on to defeat Austria and France, the commissioners decided to top the column with a shining bronze statue of Victory for good measure. The Berlin Victory Column is truly a tower; the combined height of the statue and the pillar is 67 meters, or 220 feet. (For comparison, the Statue of Liberty, base included, is 93 meters.) It was moved to its current location by the Nazis, in anticipation of their plan to turn Germany into Welthauptstadt Germania (World Capital Germania—more on this in my next post). You can climb the more than 200 stairs to the top if you pay a fee. I wasn’t tempted.
Although this qualifies as a monument to death rather than life, I should mention here the Soviet War Memorial that sits in the Tiergarten. It is a monument to the 80,000 Soviet soldiers who died during the Battle of Berlin, during the Second World War. As luck would have it, the monument was constructed in what later became West Germany; as a result, during the Cold War honor guards from East Germany came every day to stand watch; and civilians from East Germany were prevented by the Berlin Wall from visiting the monument that commemorates their “liberation.” History’s can be rather droll. The monument is yet another example of Roman-inspired architecture, taking the form of a gently curving Stoa. Two howitzer artillery pieces and two T-34 tanks flank the monument, and a striding statue of a soldier—unmistakably Soviet in his heroic pose—caps off the display. It is hard to know what to feel about all this. While I was there, a German man began yelling at a couple of teenagers and threatening to call the police; this only added to my confusion.
From this memorial it is a 25 minute walk to our next site: Museum Island. This is a complex of five state-owned museums on an island in the Spree river.
The most famous and most visited of these is the Pergamon Museum. This museum was opened in 1930 to display some of the large-scale archaeological discoveries recently made by German researchers. I have a habit of running into lengthy, ecstatic descriptions when I write about museums, as displayed in my post about the British Museum, so I will attempt to limit myself to a brief comment.
The Pergamon Museum is named after its most famous exhibit: the Pergamon Altar, a beautifully preserved temple from the Ancient Greek city of Pergamon. Unfortunately, the exhibit was closed in 2014 for remodeling, and won’t be open against until 2019 or 2020; so I did not get to see it.
I did, however, get to see the Ishtar Gate, which might be even more beautiful. This is a gate constructed in the walls of Babylon during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II, in the sixth century BCE. Its function is as decorative as defensive. Made of bricks glazed with lapis lazuli, the gate must have shone like cobalt in the sun; and its azul surface is covered in exquisite bas-reliefs of dragons and bulls. As it stands, the gate in the museum is not entirely original: some bricks were created using the original technique to complete the structure. In any case, I think the Ishtar Gate is easily among the most beautiful works of art from the ancient world: I was stunned when I saw pictures of it in Art History class, and stunned when I saw it in Berlin.
Beside the Pergamon Altar and the Ishtar Gate, the museum has two more monumental exhibitions: the Market Gate of Miletus and the Mshatta Facade.
The Market Gate of Miletus was built by the Romans in the second century and destroyed by an earthquake a few hundred years later. In 1900 the insatiably curious German archaeologists found the destroyed gate, excavated it, and transported the pieces to Berlin. Its reconstruction involved the use of many new materials, which was controversial; then World War II inflicted further damage on the old ruin, requiring further reconstruction. For something with such a violent past, so often rebuilt, the gate is convincingly ancient and absolutely impressive. It is a two-store facade with rows of columns, rather like the backdrop of the amphitheater I saw in Mérida, Spain.
The Mshatta façade is perhaps even more impressive. It is a section from a wall of an Ummayad Palace, excavated in present-day Jordan, built in the eighth century. The wall is exquisitely decorated with fine animal and vegetable motifs carved into the surface. This monument, like seemingly everything in this city, was also damaged in World War II. The Mshatta façade is the largest, though perhaps not the most beautiful, exhibition in the museum’s section on Islamic art. There were decorated Korans, luxurious rugs, sections of columns, roofs, and walls covered in wonderful geometrical arabesques. No culture in history, I suspect, has developed the art of ornamentation to such a pitch of perfection as in Muslim culture: every surface, every nook and cranny, every piece of furniture and written word, is executed with care and taste.
It is possible to buy a combined pass for all the museums on Museum Island—the Pergamon Museum, the Bode Museum, the Old National Gallery, the New Museum, and the Old Museum—but I had neither the time nor the money for that. After the Pergamon Museum, I could realistically only visit one more, and I chose the Old National Gallery. But this was a hard choice to make. The Neues Museum has the iconic bust of Nefertiti, still gorgeous and regal after three millennia. The Altes Museum looked even better, with an impressive and extensive collection of Greco-Roman statues—not to mention the lovely neoclassical building itself. But after the Pergamon Museum—and after seeing the British Museum a few weeks earlier—I’d had enough of the ancient world.
The building of the Alte Nationalgalerie yet another stately neoclassical construction; and the visitor, upon ascending the front steps, is greeted by equally stately neoclassical sculptures and busts of famous Germans. The pure white marble and technical finish of these sculptures immediately struck me as cold and academic, as does most art that imitates a dead culture.
The paintings inside—which mostly consist of portraits, landscapes, and still lifes from the 18th to the 19th centuries—ranged from the forgettable to the truly excellent. Of particular interest, for me, were the portraits of Hegel (stern old metaphysician), the brothers Grimm (as skeletal as their stories), and Alexander von Humboldt (a dashing dandy).
The finest paintings on display were those by Caspar David Friedrich, whose portraits of humanity dwarfed and mocked by nature—silhouetted figures under glowing suns, buffeted by tides and rain, or lonely men solemnly contemplating a vast expanse or the desiccated ruins of some dead culture—capture and express the same sentiment as Shelley does in “Ozymandias”: the overwhelming awareness of human finitude. Other than these works, however, I mostly enjoyed the few impressionist and post-impressionist works on offer.
The courtyard outside the Nationalgalerie is one of the most peaceful and pleasant spots I found in Berlin. The river flows nearby, with barges carrying tourists drifting past, and on the far bank are still more tourists basking in the sun. From here it is a very quick walk to Berlin Cathedral. This stands at the end of an equally picturesque plaza, full of Germans and foreigners lounging in the grass and kids playing with the central fountain.
At a glance you can tell that Berlin Cathedral is not particularly old. The central dome and the four smaller domes which surround it are all made of copper, I believe, and have the same pale green color as the Statue of Liberty. The statues of saints and angels surrounding the front portal are tinted this same algae-green. This creates an odd effect when combined with the fine neo-Renaissance building, like parts of an old ship welded onto a resplendent bank; but for all that, the cathedral is an impressive sight.
Originally built in the early 1900s, as a kind of Protestant version of St. Peter’s, it was damaged and partially destroyed, like everything, during the Second World War. Situated in East Germany, it was unsure whether the government—officially hostile to religion—would reconstruct the cathedral. Eventually they did, but the cathedral’s most famous and beautiful wing, the Denkmalkirche was destroyed, as a symbol of the Hohenzollern dynasty. Political pettiness has always been with is.
It is worth the fee to visit the Berlin Cathedral. The interior is finely decorated and cheerfully bright. Of particular interest to me—since I had just finished reading a book about the Reformation—were the sculptures of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Melanchthon standing high up above the main altar. The visitor can, if she so wishes, climb all the way up to the dome of the cathedral to see Berlin. I enjoyed the climb; but I must say that the view—ugly apartment buildings and construction sites—did not make me feel inclined to wax poetic or to fall into raptures about the beauties of the city.
In any case, you can also visit the crypt in the basement, where several members of the Hohenzollern dynasty are buried. Compared with, say, the royal crypt in Spain’s El Escorial, this one struck me as simple and subdued. Some of the coffins are quite plain and unremarkable. A few are elaborately carved, gilded, and decorated. As in the El Escorial, there are quite a few coffins for young children and infants. Before the age of vaccines and modern medicine, even the most powerful of the world couldn’t keep their children safe. But this brings me to the second part of this post: death.
I’ve just returned from visiting the new special exhibition in the Prado: Treasures of the Hispanic Society of America. It is fantastic. I had no idea that the Hispanic Society—a relatively unknown and ignored museum in uptown Manhattan—had such a vast and beautiful collection. The special exhibit adds a completely new dimension to the Prado; it is like having an entire additional museum inside the original one. It opened on April 4th and will continue until the 10th of September, and so I recommend you go see it while you can.
The Hispanic Society of America is a museum and library dedicated to Spanish and Latin American culture. It is housed in an impressive Beaux-Arts building in Audubon Terrace, situated in uptown Manhattan. (I’ve never visited or even seen the museum; and since it will be closed until 2019 for renovations, it seems as if I won’t be seeing it anytime soon.)
The museum was founded in 1904 by the exceedingly wealthy and Spain-obsessed Archer Milton Huntington, heir to the Huntington railroad fortune, who commissioned the Audubon Terrace three years later. This building complex (so named because it was built on land formerly owned by the famous naturalist), although beautiful, was not the ideal location for a museum. Being so far uptown, inconveniently distant from the tourist center of Manhattan, the Hispanic Society has attracted relatively few visitors over the years—and this, despite having the finest collection of Spanish art outside of Spain, and despite being free to visit.
The new exhibition in Madrid’s Prado has recently changed this. The Hispanic Society lent its collection to the Prado as part of a mutually beneficial exchange. The Society’s building in New York is in need of repair. Its lack of air conditioning makes it a poor environment to preserve cherished works of art; and there is not enough space to display the Society’s huge collection. The Hispanic Society also lacks the funds necessary to restore some of its priceless paintings. The Prado, in exchange for being allowed to borrow the collection, agreed to undertake these renovations at their own expense. Along with the help of the bank BBVA, the museum is even paying the transportation and exhibition costs. When interested are aligned, cooperation can accomplish marvels.
Even more important than the restoration and renovation work, the Prado’s special exhibit has already helped to make the Hispanic Society more well-known. By the end of the exhibit, 400,000 visitors are expected—and this is incredible, considering that the museum was getting only 25,000 visitors per year in New York. (I am getting most of this information from the excellent article recently published in the New York Times about the exhibit.) Considering what I’ve seen today, it is a shame that the museum languished in obscurity for so long; it certainly deserves a more ample reputation.
It is impossible to talk about the Hispanic Society without discussing its founder. Archer Milton Huntington’s fondness for all things Spanish is particularly peculiar, considering that he was active immediately after the United States fought and won the Spanish-American War in 1898. This was a period of scant respect for Spanish culture, and a period of cultural anguish in Spain (which eventually culminated in an artistic and intellectual revival by those known as the Generation of ‘98; more below).
Huntington used his vast fortune to purchase archaeological artifacts and old manuscript collections, along with works of art in nearly every medium, including several by Spanish masters. (I wonder what I would do if I were born into such a wealthy family; probably not anything nearly so admirable.) But he was careful to extend his activities to the present day as well. Huntington formed close ties with the contemporary Spanish painters Zuloaga and Sorolla, and commissioned the latter to paint several works for the Society. Indeed, what is sometimes regarded as Sorolla’s masterpiece, The Provinces of Spain—14 giant murals depicting Spanish life—was commissioned by, and remains in, the Hispanic Society.
The exhibit in the Prado is organized chronologically, from prehistoric Iberia to the early 20th century. Every object on display is fascinating. The visitor is greeted by copper-age pottery, from around 2,000 BCE, decorated with fine geometrical patterns. We then swiftly move into Roman times: a mosaic, the torso of a goddess, delicately decorated bracelets. There is an exquisite belt-buckle from the Visigothic period, and a pyxis (a small ceramic vessel) from the Ummayad caliphate period of Moorish Spain—covered in vegetable motifs of stupefying beauty. Even more stunning is the so-called Alhambra Silk, from a later period of Moorish Spain, woven with the same intricate, mathematical patterns as the tiles in that famous palace in Granada. Reliquaries, funerary statues, and, most memorably, gothic door-knockers with fantastic beasts—iron dogs, lions, and dragons snarling in wait for the visitor—give yet another intimate look into the Spanish past.
One of the Hispanic Society’s prized possessions is its extensive collection of rare books and manuscripts. There is a private letter from Carlos V to his son, the eventual Philip II, advising the young man how to govern in Carlos’s absence. Illuminated bibles and even a copy of the Torah, every inch of every page decorated with care and skill, along with official grants and royal decrees, bearing both elaborate ornamentation and the original leaden seals—all this is collected for the visitor’s pleasure. I cannot fathom how much time it would have taken to create even one of those books. Everything had to be done by hand; and since every page was beautified with elaborate drawings and designs—even documents of state, which presumably needed to be produced in some haste—I am led to imagine scores upon scores of scribes and artists in the service of the king and the church.
I was especially gratified to find the historic maps on display. It is always fascinating to see old maps; they capture so much about the worldview of the time. There is one map of Teocaltiche—a province of Mexico—drawn up, if memory serves, either by the missionary or the colonial governor stationed there. It is an extraordinary thing: instead of a useful tool for navigation, it is a cartoon featuring naked natives practicing human sacrifice, battling the Spanish invaders with bows and arrows, and in general causing all sorts of chaos. The thing is clearly the work of a European mind, horrified by the “savages” he encountered. More beautiful is the map of the world by Giovanni Vespucci, nephew of the more famous Amerigo Vespucci. This map is impressively accurate, for the most part, in addition to being attractively made. The shape of the American continents is left vague and undefined, mostly because Europeans hadn’t gotten around them yet.
The most prized items of the collection are the three paintings by Velazquez. There is one portrait of a little girl—unnamed, but perhaps a relative of the painter—which showcases Velazquez’s talent for capturing charming young faces. Even better is Velazquez’s full-length portrait of the Conde Duque, Gaspar de Guzmán, Philip IV’s most powerful minister, a kind of Spanish counterpart to Cardinal Richelieu. He stands proudly, dressed in velvety black, looking every inch the ruler. The Hispanic Society also boasts an excellent portrait by Goya of the Duchess of Alba. She is dressed as a Maja (a lower-class resident of Madrid who tended to dress splendidly; there was apparently a fashion for adopting lower-class dress at the time) and pointing proudly down at her feet, perhaps to signify that she owns the land. It is a wonderful picture; there is so much energy in the Duchess’s feature and pose.
I thought that the exhibit would end with Goya, but the Prado has dedicated another floor to the collection. After an escalator ride I found myself surrounded by even more excellent paintings. Of these, the most important and impressive is a series of portraits by Sorolla—an excellent and perhaps underrated portraitist—of notable Spanish intellectuals and artists from the time, including most of the prominent members of the Generation of ’98. This includes the novelist Pío Baroja, the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, and the poet Antonio Machado, along with Azorín himself, the essayist who coined the name “Generation of ‘98” (the generation of artists and intellectuals whose lives were shaped by Spain’s defeat in the Spanish-American War in 1898). All of the portraits are remarkable examples of the portraitist’s ability to capture a complex personality in a gesture, a posture, and an expression.
Along with these works by Sorolla—which also includes two of his enchanting beach scenes—the collection also includes some notable works by Zuloaga. My favorite of these was his The Family of the Gypsy Bullfighter, which manages to combined startling realism of feature (I was immediately reminded of Ribera) with more modernist touches of color and shading. This blending of traditional and modernist seems to have been a persistent feature of his paintings, and allowed him to please both parties. He was particularly praised—both by Huntington and by Unamuno, at least—for his ability to capture the ‘essence’ of Spain. (This was a time when many countries were preoccupied with their ‘essences’.)
This little essay has been hastily dashed out, with enthusiasm and love, for a heretofore underappreciated cultural institution. I naturally feel a particular attachment to the Hispanic Society, since it is from New York and connected to Spain. After visiting this exhibit, it is impossible not to share, at least in part, Huntington’s passion for all things Spanish. What a wonderful breadth and depth of history is collected here.
I’ve fallen far behind in my travel posts, and now I find myself in the embarrassing position of writing about a trip I took over a year ago. It also seems that, no matter how hard I try to be brief, I end up writing more and more. Well, enough prefatory remarks; on to business.
For an American, there is something religious about visiting London for the first time. We have been hearing about the place all our lives. Dry humor, pints of beer, red phone booths, black taxis, fish and chips, bad teeth, good tea, bad weather, good tikka masala, the British Invasion, the British Parliament, the British Empire, Queen Elizabeth, Queen Victoria, Shakespeare, Dickens, the Beatles, Monty Python, Dr. Who, Harry Potter—London is the focal point of all our stereotypes, good and bad, of England and the English.
This is important for us Americans, since England is the only other country whose media we regularly consume. English media is so important for us because of our shared language. Unlike in Spain—where English-language songs often play on the radio (and people sing these songs without understanding the lyrics), and where American shows, overdubbed in Spanish, are extremely popular—in the United States we don’t listen to music in a foreign language if we can help it, and we only watch television that was originally made in English (overdubbing looks silly). This provincial preference for English media limits our options of foreign media mainly to England and Australia, and England has been the clear favorite.
A consequence of this popularity of English media is that Americans have internalized a highly partial picture of the English character. We associate the English with sophistication, elegance, wit, good manner, royalty, and the historical past.
This is almost the polar opposite of the English reputation in Spain. You see, Spain is an excellent travel destination for English holidaymakers—cheap, close, and sunny—and as a result, lots of English tourists come to Spain looking for a good time. A “good time” entails drinking, of course, and thus there are lots of drunken English people stumbling around city centers on any given night. As a result, Spaniards think of the English, not as genteel aristocrats, but as tipplers.
(Parenthetically, the English also have very different alcohol consumption habits than the Spanish. On a Friday or Saturday night, people in Spain begin drinking in earnest after dinner—which means 11 pm at the earliest. They often don’t even leave their apartment to go to bars and clubs until 2 in the morning, and don’t return home until dawn the next day. In London, on the other hand, drinking begins as soon as people leave work, at 5 pm. This is due, in part, to an old law in London that required pubs to close down at 11. So the English stop drinking when the Spanish barely start.
(This difference in schedule is supplemented by a difference in speed and volume. Spaniards are rarely visibly drunk. I have seen very few Spanish people stumbling from alcohol; instead, they focus on maintaining a level of comfortable tipsiness for a long period of time. Compared with Brits, Spaniards sip their drinks, and eat a lot while they drink. English people, by contrast, get properly drunk, and fast, much like many Americans do. As a consequence, Brits can be very loud drinkers—in my experience, at least. This is an especially interesting contrast, I think, since in every other circumstance Brits tend to be mucher more quiet than Spaniards.)
Of course, both the American and the Spanish stereotype is an over-generalization; they are based on very partial exposures to the English character. Partial and false as they may be, however, these stereotypes did succeed in endowing England with a certain contradictory mystique—a place full of witty drunkards, elegant and boisterous, cultured and slovenly? I needed to go see London for myself, to catch a glimpse of the reality behind the reputation.
My problem was that, at the time, I was particularly low on funds. And however distorted all the other stereotypes may be about London, this one is true: London is expensive. Well, it’s expensive if you enjoy eating, sleeping indoors, using transportation, and doing any activity besides walking and sitting outside. This was a few months before the Brexit referendum, and the pound was still strong.
As a result, my short trip to London—barely 48 hours—became a frantic exercise in traveling cheaply. I didn’t buy an oyster card, and I didn’t use the Tube or the buses. I ate “meal deals”—pre-packed sandwiches at Tesco supermarkets, not terribly delicious—instead of paying for dinner in a restaurant. And I focused on visiting museums, which are free in London, instead of other popular sites.
Arrival & First Impressions
As usual, I traveled with Ryanair. My plane arrived in Stansted, the smallest of London’s airports, where I had to fill out a form and wait in a long queue to enter the country. The English, it seems, are almost as paranoid about their borders as we are in the United States. From Stansted, I took the so-called Stansted Express to London’s central Liverpool Station. The ride took about an hour, and was not cheap. This is a typical Ryanair experience: the flight is inexpensive, but uncomfortable; and you land in an unpopular airport far outside the city. I am a loyal customer.
I sat in the train—dazed from lack of sleep, filled with nervous energy, physically miserable but mentally awake—and stared out the window in disbelief. Was I really here? Was this England, the land of dry humor and wet weather? I gazed out at fleeting patches of green countryside as the train sped by, and savored the delightful names of the train stations between Stansted and London. (Of course I can’t remember any of the names now; but as I look on Google maps, I find such gems as Matching Tye, Hartfield Heath, Hastingwood, Theydon Bois.)
English novels—from Austen, to Dickens, to Rowling—have powerfully shaped the American imagination of the past; and thus, by association, English place-names strike many Americans as irresistibly charming. Each name seems to be the title of another great novel, filled with irony and romance, and written with quaint wit. Likewise, the English countryside—a neatly trimmed park, whose rolling hills are covered in a grey mist—is featured in so many films that even the snatches of green I saw out the train window filled me with delight.
These feelings of romance and fantasy are, I suspect, nearly universal for Americans visiting England, and specifically London, for the first time. England is the only foreign country we regularly see in television and movies. This gives the experience of visiting England the effect of stepping into a movie set—everything is familiar, and yet unreal. The same thing happens, I believe, to many who visit New York for the first time. Many people have independently told me that it felt like they were in a movie, since so many landmarks and features were familiar to them from films.
The train arrived, and I got out to go find my Airbnb. I was on edge. The combination of sleep deprivation (the flight was terribly early) with the usual stress of navigating a foreign city (my phone didn’t have service), plus the feeling of unreality that comes from actually being in a place which I’d been hearing about all my life—all this combined to make me edgy and oversensitive. The double-decker red buses, the black taxis, the cars driving on the wrong side of the road, the eccentric road signs (including the delightfully existential “Change Priorities Ahead”), pubs with absurd names (“Ye Old Cheshire Cheese,” on Fleet Street), the red phone booths scattered seemingly at random (apparently, the city had once sold all these phone booths, only to regret the decision and then repurchase as many as they could)—my first impressions of London did contain many of ye quaint olde stereotypes that I expected.
But one thing that, as a New Yorker, always surprises me when I visit a new city is the lack of skyscrapers. Madrid has only four buildings which can reasonably be called skyscrapers, and they’re located in the north of the city, far outside the center. London has its own share of skyscrapers, to be sure. But walking around in London has nothing of that vertiginous feeling that New York produces, the feeling of being crushed by steel and glass, the feeling of constantly craning one’s neck. I had always thought of London as being a huge and imposing place, so this lack of skyscrapers did disconcert me somewhat.
In many other respects, however, London can be easily compared with New York: the bustling streets, the flashy billboards and ever-present advertisements, the endless shopping, the infinite variety of chain restaurants, the ethnic diversity, the smell and the grime. London even has the same phony Buddhist monks trying to scam tourists into giving them money. (You can find a great story about them here; and in case you’re wondering, if someone is aggressively asking you for money, you can safely assume that they’re not a Buddhist monk.)
As I discovered when I got to my Airbnb, one way that London is incompatibly different from both my country and Spain is the style of its outlets. I had to buy a power-adaptor there; and like everything in London, it wasn’t cheap. Be wise and buy one ahead of time.
These were my first impressions, hazy and distorted, as I walked from the station to my Airbnb. Already I was running short of time. It was midday Friday, and my flight home would leave early on Sunday. So I set out to the first place on my list, the National Gallery.
A Note on Cuisine and Language
I should preface my trip to the National Gallery with a mention of a small restaurant, the Breadline, which can be found nearby. I decided to eat there because it had fish and chips—I know it’s silly, but I couldn’t leave London without eating that iconic meal—and because its prices were eminently reasonable. The food was plain and basic, but nonetheless, for me, extremely satisfying. I even returned the next day to try an English breakfast, which I quite liked.
English food has a poor reputation, and I understand why; it is hardly a cuisine designed to have universal appeal. Nevertheless, if those two meals can be trusted to give a fair representation (an open question), I can say that I am a fan. There is something about greasy fried potatoes and fried fish, covered in white vinegar, that just feels right to me. And sausage and beans for breakfast is brilliant.
While I was eating, a young British man came in and said “A small white coffee to take away.” This is an excellent example of the differences between British and American English. This sentence, uttered in New York, would produce only bafflement. You would have to translate it to “A small coffee with milk to go,” if you wanted to be understood. I run into these differences constantly as I teach English. Before coming to Spain, I thought the differences between British and American English were minor and negligible, besides the accent; but I was wrong. Working with British textbooks and materials can be extremely frustrating, since often I don’t know what certain expressions or words mean—which is embarrassing when my students ask. Not only that, but there are a few subtle grammatical differences between the dialects, such as in the use of the perfect tense. But this is a digression of a digression; now to the museum.
The National Gallery
It is immensely satisfying to simply walk into a museum, without fees or lines, like it’s your own home. The experience is even better when the museum is one of the best in the world. The National Gallery is only behind the Louvre, the British Museum, and the Metropolitan in visitors per year; and this is especially impressive considering the museum’s collection is comparatively small, easily viewable in three hours or so. But for those with any sensitivity to art, these three hours will be among the most rewarding of your aesthetic life; for the National Gallery’s collection is remarkable both for its breadth and its excellence. The only museums I’ve visited that compare in the average quality of the paintings on display are the Prado in Madrid and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Every room in the gallery contains a masterpiece, often many.
Indeed, there are so many wonderful paintings—paintings I had seen and loved in art history books—that I cannot even hope to mention all of them in this post, much less describe the impression each one made on me. Nevertheless, I can’t resist the temptation to dwell on some of these exquisite works of the human imagination.
The first painting which attracted my attention was the portrait of Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger. This is an extraordinary demonstration of the portraitist’s art; instead of a photographic image, capturing the physical surface of the famous writer, we get a glimpse of the writer’s mind. As in any excellent portrait, the inner is made manifest in the outer without compromising the realism of the portrait. His sharply angular face bespeaks cleverness; his gaunt features reveals a life dedicated to the mind and not the body; his half-closed eyes and serene expression show calm intelligence and a wisdom that sees beyond earthly troubles. We also catch a hint of Erasmus’s self-complacent vanity: he looks a little too comfortable in his fine fur robe, and his hands rest a little too easily upon a volume of his own writings. Is there a more convincing portrait of the scholar?
Holbein has an even more famous work on display at the museum: The Ambassadors. This is a portrait of two aristocratic ambassadors (their identity was long debated), in a room which includes an exquisitely-rendered still-life of several objects—a lute, several globes, a psalm-book, and various instruments of navigation. But the most memorable, and bizarre, feature of this painting is the giant anamorphic skull in the center. Anamorphic means that it is purposefully distorted when viewed head-on, and must be seen from a specific perspective to be seen properly. When viewed from the front, the skull is just a strange grey diagonal shape; but when you walk to the painting’s left, the skull comes into focus. I can only imagine the technical virtuosity required of a painter to pull off this trick with such consummate perfection; when seen properly, the skull is finely detailed, beautifully shaded, and anatomically accurate. Holbein painted this tour de force in 1533.
The National Gallery also possesses what is probably the most famous papal portrait in history: Raphael’s portrait of Pope Julius II. Julius was the most important of the high renaissance popes; he is responsible for the beginning of the Vatican museum, Michelangelo’s commission to paint the Sistine Chapel, and Raphael’s commission to paint the Vatican Library. Not only that, Julius originated the idea of tearing down the original St. Peter’s and building a new one. Such a man must have had enormous energy and a deep sensitivity to art. And yet in Raphael’s portrait we see him weary, worn-out, and melancholic. He is gently gripping a handkerchief in one hand and his chair in the other; his eyes are hollow, and the wrinkled skin of his face droops loosely from his skull. He seems to be just feebly holding on to the last chords of life, staring at his own end with resignation. Such terrible realism was entirely new in papal portraiture.
Before going to the National Gallery, I didn’t look up any of the famous pictures that could be found there; so I was surprised and delighted when I found myself face to face with one of my favorite pictures, Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait. I remember first seeing this portrait in Ernst Gombrich’s Story of Art, and being stunned. In the context of its time, 1434, the portrait is startling for its realism and its domestic subject: a marriage contract taking place in a bedroom. To a modern eye, perhaps the portrait no longer seems terribly realistic; the husband, with his pale expressionless face and his oversized clothes, always looks like he belongs in a Tim Burton film to me; but this only adds to its charm. The little toy-sized dog in the foreground—as adorable as ever—and the mirror in the background—showing us the whole scene from reverse in a distorted perspective—add to the painting’s undeniable power.
There are dozens more paintings—of equal importance and beauty—that I could devote an unworthy paragraph to describing; but this would only swell this post to unartistic dimensions. Yet I cannot move on without mentioning the National Gallery’s collection of Italian Renaissance art. This includes Piero del Pollaiolo’s masterpiece, The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, a landmark in the realistic use of perspective, with the saint enricled by crossbowmen.
Even more important is one of the two versions of Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks. The other one is in the Louvre, and is usually considered the original; but I think the Gallery’s version, with its deeper shades and more dramatic chiaroscuro, is lovelier. Apart from its beauty, this painting is notable for its setting. Leonardo, as is typical of him, creates a carefully naturalistic background for this traditional Biblical scene. In previous eras, the background of paintings was almost entirely neglected; monochrome gold foil set off the human figures. But in Leonardo’s masterpiece, the background—a cave, which was an unprecedented choice—swallows up its subject. Such careful attention to rendering nature was something new in history.
I also cannot move on without mention of Rembrandt. The National Gallery has several of Rembrandt’s most highly regarded works, including two of his self-portraits. Looking into the eyes of a famous artist, as he stares back at you from a self-portrait, is an unnerving experience; suddenly the gap in space and time that separates your lives vanishes; the artist has transcended death, and even transcended life; his focused gaze, dry pigment on a canvas, will outlast even your own living flesh. On a less dramatic note, the Gallery also has one of Velazquez’s most famous works: The Rockeby Venus, famous for being one of the few female nudes in Spanish art (one other being Goya’s La Maja Desnuda).
I will muster my self-control and mention only two more works.
By common consent, the greatest painter in English history is Joseph Mallord William Turner; and several of his finest works can be seen at the Gallery. Of these, my favorite is Rain, Steam, and Speed—The Great Western Railway. A locomotive emerges from a tempest, a black tube bursting through grey fog. Every line and color is blurred as if seen from an out-of-focus camera. All we can see in the background are hints of blue sky, a bridge, and a lake where some people are rowing in a little boat.
In this paintings, Turner seems to have both anticipated and surpassed the impressionists in rendering momentary flashes of life. The swirl of indistinct color is absolutely hypnotic; yet the painting is not merely pretty, as are many impressionistic paintings, but a convincing symbol of the relationship between human technology and natural power. The train punches through the mist, in a confident gesture of industrial might; and yet the stormy clouds that swirl all around menace the lonely black locomotive. Both the train and its surrounding are impressive, even sublime, but also inhumanly vast and cold; and the two slight figures in the rowboat below reveal our true vulnerability in the face of these forces.
The last painting I’ll mention before forcing myself away—even remembering the Gallery is a pleasure—is Bathers at Asnières, by Georges Seurat. This painting was completed in 1884; but it was not until many years after Seurat’s death that it was recognized as a masterpiece. It depicts several middle-class Parisians relaxing by the Seine on a hot summer day. The technique Seurat used is almost pointillistic in its precise use of strokes and colors, relying mainly on bright horizontal daubs. The combination of statuesque modeling and poses—the bathers’ heavy bodies and horizontal orientation remind me of an Egyptian frieze—with Seurat’s delicate treatment of brushstrokes, makes the painting look crystal-clear from a afar and blurred from up close. The treatment really captures the feeling of heat: how everything can seem perfectly clear in the summer sun, and yet distant objects are blurred.
Complementing this tension between form and vagueness, is an emotional tension between fun and desolation. At first glance the bathers are having a wonderful day. They are at leisure, enjoying the sunshine, the smooth grass, and the cool water. But then you notice how isolated is each one of the figures. They are all in their own world; many seem lost in thought. Their expressions are emotionless; their hunching posture bespeaks weariness. The factory spewing smoke in the background adds another hint of gloom.
To me, the painting is a devastating portrait of the isolation and meaninglessness of contemporary life. We imagine the figures working 9 to 5 jobs in offices during the week, performing mechanical tasks that mean nothing to them. Then they go to their usual restaurant for a bite to eat and then to their apartment to sleep. When with their friends, they drink and talk of trivialities. On a holiday, they come here, and stare into space, unable to articulate to themselves or anyone else the strange sense of emptiness that engulfs them whenever they have a free moment. It is a comfortable world that conceives of nothing beyond wealth and luxury; and its members, when released from their usual routine, can think of nothing to do. Convention dictates that they come here to ‘relax’. The painting is the perfect complement and illustration of Albert Camus’s The Stranger: it is a painting of a world of strangers, to one another and to themselves.
The next day, I headed to one of the other great museums in London: the British Museum. Originally I planned to include my account of that great institution in this post; but I ended up writing so much that I decided that the British Museum deserved its own separate essay, which you can find here.
Brief Snatches of London Life
When I wasn’t visiting museums, I had a few spare hours to wander around the city. This allowed me to glimpse, all too briefly, most of the major sights in London—the places that must be given a mention and a respectful nod in any post about that old city.
The first landmark I insisted on seeing was Big Ben. A trip to London without seeing that venerable clocktower would be like a trip to Pisa without its leaning campanile. I was so ignorant when I visited London (and remain, despite strenuous efforts) that I didn’t even know that Big Ben was attached to the British parliament building, the Palace of Westminster. It was a delightful surprise to find these two landmarks joined together.
Although it looks gothic, the palace is of fairly recent construction. The old Westminster palace burned down in 1834 (Turner witnesses the fire, and painted several pictures of it). The new building was designed by Charles Barry, who used a Gothic revival style in his plan. I doubt there is any parliament buildings in the world so elegant, so imposing, and so charming. Few experiences in London, if any, can do a better job of creating that Hollywood sensation of being in a movie than standing on the Westminster bridge, seeing that palace and the clocktower, and hearing the ringing bells of Big Ben chime out the hour.
From there I walked away from the bridge, pausing to examine the statue of Winston Churchill (covered in pigeon droppings) in the nearby plaza, and went to Westminster Abbey. In my very limited experience, this is easily the most beautiful church building in London. I can’t say much about it, because I didn’t go inside—it was closed by the time I arrived, and in any case I didn’t want to pay the steep entry fee—but I can say that its façade is exquisite, especially the north entrance. Funnily enough, Westminster Abbey is not an abbey—at least, not anymore. Originally it was an abbey of the Benedictine monks, but after the Protestant Reformation, and after a brief stint as a cathedral, the abbey was designated a church. For the last 1,000 years it has been the site of coronations and royal weddings.
The walk from Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace is about 15 minutes—slightly longer if, like me, you walk through St. James’s Park. I highly recommend this, since the park is absolutely lovely.
Architecturally, Buckingham Palace isn’t much to look at; it presents itself as a cheerless, square, grey block. The building was not originally designed as a royal residence; it only became the seat of the monarchy in 1837, during the reign of Queen Victoria. The palace takes its name from the Duke of Buckingham, who originally had it built. It sits at the end of the Mall—a major road often used for processions—in a roundabout in which stands the golden Victoria Memorial, which commemorates that famous queen.
Even so, neither the monument nor the palace would attract a great deal of attention, I suspect, were it not for the Queen’s Guard. Equipping guards with antique weapons and dressing them in bright red outfits with fluffy tall hats seems to be one of those conspicuously impractical things that wealthy and powerful people do to showcase their wealth and power. Your average rich entrepreneur or politician could not afford to keep a corps of totally inefficient guards performing ceremonial movements all day (which are, naturally, supplemented by other guards using modern weapons, keeping careful watch, and wearing less conspicuous clothes). Here is an incident that demonstrates the guards’ mainly ceremonial role: in 1982 a man managed to evade the palace guard and make his way to the Queen’s bedroom, where he was apprehended by the city police.
I spent some time watching the guards march back and forth, their limbs as stiff as a wooden nutcracker. Purely as athletic performers, the soldiers are undeniably impressive: the timing, the coordination, the posture, the endurance—it must require excellent physical condition and serious training to keep up the routine, especially considering that they wear those clothes even in hot weather. The guards now mainly function as a tourist attraction and an amusing symbol of British culture; but to be fair, the Queen’s Guard aren’t the only soldiers to wear funny clothes (think of the Swiss Guard in the Vatican) or to engage in elaborate ceremony purely for show (think of the tomb of the unknown soldier in Washington D.C.).
By the time I left the British Museum the next day, I only had about 6 hours left before I’d have to go to sleep and say goodbye to London. The best way to get the most out of this time, I figured, was a free walking tour. The guide was excellent, and the tour just what I wanted. Unfortunately I don’t remember the name of the company or of our guide; he introduced himself as the only American tour guide in London—so he shouldn’t be too hard to find. (But apparently this isn’t true; a Google search reveals an American woman named Amber who also gives tours.)
The tour focused on the City of London. You may not know—I certainly didn’t—that the “City of London” refers to the original part of the metropolis, founded by the Romans way back when. This original City of London is now only a tiny fraction of the greater metropolitan area; indeed, it is quite a small place, having an area of only one square mile. This city is far older than England; it has enjoyed special privileges (or, to use the phrase of the Magna Carta, “ancient liberties”) since the Norman Conquest; and even now it retains the privilege to create many of its own regulations, independent of the greater metropolitan area or of England herself. The city has laxer building codes, which explains why so many of London’s skyscrapers are found there, and also looser financial regulations, which explains why it remains the center of London’s economic life. The City of London is home to the Bank of London, the London Stock Exchange, and Lloyd’s of London (the insurance market).
The tour began at Temple Station. Our guide took us along the river and then down Fleet Street, giving us bits of details about London’s past and present. We walked by Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, one of the oldest and best known pubs in London, famous both for its silly name and its dark, windowless interior; and this prompted our guide to embark on a long, impassioned explanation of London pub culture. Though an American, he was clearly a convert to the pub way of life; he had strong opinions about what made a pub good or bad; and he had pub recommendations for nearly any area of the city. (I was so inspired that, after the tour, I went into a pub to get a drink; but the beer was so expensive and so mediocre that my disappointment was even more bitter than the beer.)
Soon we reached St. Paul’s Cathedral. The tour didn’t pause for us to go inside; and, in any case, the entrance fee is formidable enough to discourage penurious travelers like me. Among other things, St. Paul’s is famous for having one of the tallest domes in the world. But the present St. Paul’s replaced an older, even taller cathedral (well, it was taller before its spire was destroyed by lightning), which was badly damaged in the Great Fire of London in 1666. The present building was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, and completed in his lifetime. Wren was, if not the greatest, at least the most prolific architect in England’s history. He designed and oversaw the construction of no less than 52 churches after the Great Fire. The architect himself is buried in the crypt of the cathedral, in a modest grave that says “Reader, if you seek his monument—look around you.”
From there we moved on to the Monument to the Great Fire, also designed by, you guessed it, Sir Christopher Wren. As our guide pointed out, the monument—a tall doric column that originally rose far above its surroundings—is now hemmed in by neighboring buildings and dwarfed by modern architecture. The guide used this as an example of the tendency of Londoners to be more interested in the future than the past.
To emphasize this point, he directed our attention to the skyscraper at 20 Fenchurch Street, a bizarre, top-heavy construction, completed in 2014, whose shape quickly earned it the nickname ‘The Walkie Talkie’. This building won—and earned—an award for ugliness. (It was also discovered that the building’s concave shape focused the sun’s rays strongly enough to damage cars, ignite doormats, and fry eggs; a screen has since been installed to prevent this from happening.) But the Walkie Talkie is only one of the many skyscrapers that have sprung up in the City of London in recent memory, despite concerns that these tall monstrosities will dwarf and obstruct historic buildings.
From the cathedral, we went down towards the river and ended up under London Bridge. Many people, including me, assume from the nursery rhyme that London Bridge is a tourist attraction; indeed, the justly famous Tower Bridge, which spans the Thames nearby (see below), is often mistakenly called the London Bridge. Sad to say, the current London Bridge is a brutalist piece of concrete and steel, a minimalistic slab of stone that stretches across the Thames, without charm, beauty, or really any distinguishing quality.
The nursery rhyme dates from a time when a different London Bridge spanned the Thames. The ‘Old’ London Bridge, built in 1209 and demolished in 1831, rested on stone arches and was covered in wooden buildings (which proved to be a fire hazard). It was famous for being the site where the severed heads of those executed for treason, dipped in tar and impaled on pikes, were displayed for passersby to take heed. William Wallace’s head was the first to play this role.
In 1831, the ‘New’ London Bridge was built to replace the crumbling medieval construction; this bridge also rested on arches, but it was taller and so allowed bigger ships to pass underneath. In the 1960s it was discovered that London Bridge was falling down (sinking into the riverbed) and had to be replaced. In true English entrepreneurial spirit, the bridge was sold; an American oil tycoon, Robert McCulloch, bought the bridge, disassembled it, shipped it to the United States, and then reassembled it in Lake Havasu City, Arizona—a little piece of English history in the American south. The current behemoth was finished in 1972.
The tour came to an end front of the Tower of London. Once again, I didn’t go inside that old castle—I am really exposing myself as a pathetic traveler, I know—but contented myself with walking around the perimeter. From the outside, the Tower of London doesn’t seem to merit the name “tower”; the White Tower, the central citadel which sits at the center of the castle complex, is less than 100 feet tall—almost invisible in the context of London. The castle is quite venerable; it was first constructed by the Normans in the 11th century, and was expanded in the preceding two centuries. At present the Tower of London is a large complex with two concentric layers of stone walls surrounding the central keep, and some additional buildings such as a chapel and a barracks. The outer wall is surrounded by a moat, now left dry. Besides the castle itself, visitors can see several historical objects on display, such as Henry VIII’s armor and—most notably—the Crown Jewels of England.
The Tower of London has played an important and often a nefarious role in English history. For a long time it served as the British version of the Bastille, as a prison for traitors and other political pests. Anne Boleyn, unfortunate wife of Henry VIII, is the most famous prisoner ever to be held and executed in the tower; legend has it that her ghost still travels through the old castle, her severed head under her arm. But as I stood there looking at that stone pile, I thought only of Thomas More, the British intellectual who dreamed of a utopia with freedom of religion, and who was imprisoned in the tower and then executed for being true to his Catholic faith (also by Henry VIII). More’s head was eventually covered in tar and displayed on a pike on the old London Bridge.
The tour guide ended with a short speech, which I will try to reproduce here:
“In this tour, we’ve seen many different types of power. We have the political and military power of the Tower of London, the religious power of St. Paul’s cathedral and the Church of England, and the economic power of the London Stock Exchange. And this, ultimately, is what the City of London has always been about: the use of power to control its own destiny. It’s a place oriented towards the future, constantly striving to master whatever is the next form of social power in order to maintain its dominance in the world’s affairs.”
And this strikes me as perfectly true.
From the Tower of London I made a quick walk to the nearby Tower Bridge. This is the iconic bridge often mistakenly called the London Bridge. It’s a pretty sight, with two neo-Gothic towers supporting two platforms, one higher and one lower. Built in the 1890s, its design, by Sir Joseph Bazalgette, was innovative: a combined suspension bridge and drawbridge. The idea (according to the tour guide) was to allow pedestrians to keep using the bridge even when the drawbridge was drawn up to allow ships to pass.
Pedestrians soon learned, however, that walking up the stairs in one of the towers, crossing the upper platform, and then walking down the stairs in the other platform, took even more time than just waiting for the drawbridge to close again. Accordingly, pedestrians hardly ever used the upper platform, which came to be frequented mainly by criminals and prostitutes; it was closed in 1910. Nowadays, you need to pay an entrance fee to go up to the upper walkway. This is just another example of a brilliant idea that doesn’t take into account basic human realities: an innovative plan for a bridge that ignores the time and effort needed to climb several flights of stairs. It is certainly pretty, though.
As my last stop I made my way to Shoreditch, a neighborhood which had been recommended to me by a Londoner in my Spanish class. Shoreditch is London’s Williamsburg: a previously working class neighborhood that has been gentrified, and is now home to trendy restaurants and technology companies. The area even looks like Williamsburg, with narrower streets and older, shorter buildings, full of colorful shops and cafes. The population, too, is almost indistinguishable from its New York counterpart: men with large mustaches, plaid shirts, and suspenders; women with half their heads shaven, nose rings, and small, tasteful tattoos—in a word, hipsters. I felt right at home. The gentrification is so extreme as to be beyond parody; there is, for example, a cafe, the Cereal Killer Cafe, that serves only breakfast cereal.
To illustrate my own complicity in the world of hipsterdom, I went to a cafe famous for its rainbow-colored bagels, the Brick Lane Beigel Bake. This little cafe is open 24 hours a day, it is cheap, and it is excellent. I didn’t order a rainbow bagel, but instead a ‘hot salt beef’ on a roll. The beef comes with pickles and strong, superb mustard. I had two (for a very reasonable price) and I was stuffed. Another positive mark for English cuisine.
My time was up. My flight was leaving at seven the following morning, which meant I had to wake up at four to give myself enough time to walk to the train station and take the train to the airport.
All told, I spent less than 48 hours in London. I was constantly tired, hungry, and physically exhausted. I ate little, I slept less, and I walked almost constantly—more than 10 hours each day. I spent as little money as I could, and still the trip was expensive. I learned as much as I could, but left the vast majority of the city unseen and unknown. The trip was a physical ordeal and a financial hardship. But in return for all this trouble, I encountered, however briefly, one of the great cities of the world.
The British Museum is a project of the Enlightenment. It is one of the oldest—older than both the Louvre and the Prado—and the biggest museums in the world. Its collection began when Sir Hans Sloane, a doctor and naturalist, bequeathed his private collection of “curiosities” to the state. The collection grew from there, with the goal of encompassing all of human history under one roof. And because the British Empire soon came to dominate half the globe, this ambition was not so ludicrous as it may at first appear. Ironically, you can probably find finer artifacts in the British Museum than in the countries that the exhibits represent.
The museum’s massive collection is housed in an equally massive neoclassical building designed by Robert Smirke. Its collection is divided by era and area: Prehistory, the Ancient Near East, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, South Asia, East Asia, the Americas, Africa, and Oceania. Wandering around the museum is like getting lost in a copy of a World History textbook brought to life. The collection is so vast and detailed that the visitor is simply overwhelmed. There is far too much information to take in and process in one visit—even in a dozen visits. Each artifact on display deserves deep study; and when each room is full of hundreds of these artifacts, there is not much you can do except dumbly gape. Likewise, there is not much a writer can do except emulate Sir Hans Sloane and collect curiosities.
I began in the Ancient Near East: Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization. There is something sacred about the simple fact of age. Seeing ancient artifacts is the closest we get to time travel. The passing years corrode all material things, just as the gentle flowing of a stream eventually cuts through rock. The physical bodies of these ancients have long decayed; everything they knew and loved is gone. And yet, 5,000 years later, the messages they carved still preserve an echo of their voice.
Every time I look at a cuneiform tablet—its crisscrossing wedges and lines unintelligible to me, but visibly a language—I find myself profoundly moved. For all I know, the message is a record of a banal commercial exchange—so many goats for so many bushels of hay—but the simple fact of writing something down, of imprinting words indelibly, signals the beginning of that noble and doomed war against time—the war we call ‘civilization’.
Seeing these first scratches in stone is like catching a glimpse of the universe a few seconds after the big bang. It marks the commencement of something entirely new in history: the ability to transfer knowledge across generations; to develop literature, philosophy, mathematics, and science; to create unchanging codes of law to fairly govern societies; to make the shadows of thought external and permanent. Less fortunately, the beginning of writing also marks the origin of bureaucracy and accounting—indeed, this seems to have been its original purpose, as communities grew too big to be governed by word of mouth.
Perhaps the most impressive object in this section is the Standard of Ur. (This is one of the objects chosen in Neil MacGregor’s series, A History of the World in 100 Objects. You can listen to the segment here. I wish I had read the accompanying book, which looks excellent, before my visit to the museum; it’s on my list.)
It is called a ‘standard’, but nobody really knows what it was used for: a soundbox for a musical instrument or a box to store money for sacred projects—who can say? All we can really determine is that it almost definitely was not a standard, since the drawings are too detailed to be seen from far away. The object dates from 2,600 BCE and consists of a box whose sides depict scenes of war and peace, in three lines of images that look like a comic book. On the war side, we see an army marching off to battle, with armored footsoldiers and men in chariots; below, these charioteers trample enemies underfoot. On the reverse side, we see men seated at a banquet, drinking, while a harpist and a singer provide background music. Below, men are herding animals and carrying sacks of goods on their back, presumably to offer them in tribute to the king.
This standard was found in the site known as the Royal Cementary of Ur, along with objects seen on both the War and the Peace side. Judging from the numerous skeletons in the tomb, it seems that the Sumerians had a practice similar to the Egyptians: upon the death of kings and queens, the royal attendants were put to death to serve their master in the afterlife. I always shudder when I hear about these practices. Drinking poison to follow your king in death seems to be the height of unjust absurdity. I feel angry on behalf of the attendants who lived in oppression and who did not even find freedom in their master’s death. And yet, despite my anger, I can’t help feeling a sort of awe at the level of devotion displayed by this practice. To identify so strongly with a leader that you follow them in death seems hardly human; just as an ant or a bee colony dies with its queen, so these human groups voluntarily put themselves to death.
Violence and oppression thus form the subject-matter of this artifact and surround its discovery. On one side we see the king marching off the war and killing enemies; on the other side the king enjoys the tribute of his hard-working subjects. Nowadays it is impossible to see the society depicted on the Standard of Ur as anything but monstrous: a predatory upper-class stealing from the poor, and then sending the lower-class off to war to defend their bounty and to capture slaves.
But it is worth asking whether the beginning of civilization could have been any different. Humans had just begun farming and forming cities. For the first time in the history of our species, we were living in large, permanent settlements alongside strangers. For the first time, we had enough resources to allow some people in the community to specialize in tasks other than gathering food: priests, soldiers, musicians, administrators, rulers, and artisans. The accumulation of resources always invites raids from without and crimes from within; and fending off these attacks requires organization, leadership, and violence. A community simply couldn’t afford to be anything but authoritarian and militaristic if it hoped to survive. It is an unfortunate fact of human history that justice and security are often at odds—a fact we still confront in the question of surveillance and terrorism.
As a parting thought, I just want to note how remarkable it is that we can look at something like the Standard of Ur—a luxury product made 5,000 years ago, by people who spoke a different language, most of whom couldn’t write, who had a different religion, who lived in a different climate, a people whose experience of the world had so little in common with our own, a people who lived just at the beginning of history—we can look at this object and find it not only intelligible, but beautiful. We experience this same miracle when we read the Epic of Gilgamesh—a story still moving, 4,000 years after it was written down.
In my first anthropology class we learned that humans are cultural creatures, fundamentally shaped by their social environment. But if this were true—if our inborn nature were something negligible and our culture omnipotent—wouldn’t we expect a civilization which flourished in such different circumstances to give rise to art that we couldn’t even hope to understand? And yet, so universal is the human experience that, 5,000 years later, we can still recognize ourselves in the Standard of Ur.
This constancy of our nature is not only manifested in great works of art. For me, the most touching illustration of this are the little baubles and trinkets, the sundry domestic items that give us a taste of daily life in that faraway age. We see the universal human urge to beautify our bodies demonstrated by the jewels of Ancient Greece, Persia, and Egypt, the rings, earrings, pendants, necklaces, armlets, and bracelets which still glitter and charm today—indeed, designs inspired by ancient examples can be bought in the museum store. We see this also in one of the oldest board games ever discovered, the Royal Game of Ur, whose game-board and game-pieces are instantly recognizable by the modern visitor. A cuneiform tablet has also been found which explains the rules, allowing scholars to play the game 4,500 years after its creation (though I can’t find out whether they enjoyed it).
Yet if the continuities are striking, so are the divergences. I feel the gap that separates the present from the ancient past most poignantly whenever I look at a papyrus scroll covered in Egyptian hieroglyphics. Fewer human artifacts look more alien to me than these bits of ancient writing. Lines of simple images—eyes, storks, sparrows, hawks, snakes, scarabs, and many I can’t recognize—run up and down the papyrus, in a parade of symbolic forms. On the top and in the corner are larger drawings, depictions of mythological scenes, illustrations of dead gods and long-forgotten myths. What is most striking is how the writing is a kind of picture, and the pictures a sort of writing; the visual and the verbal are combined into a web of meaning, absolutely saturated with significance.
The thing that is so fascinating about the culture of ancient Egypt is that, for hundreds and thousands of years, through the rise and fall of dynasties and the passing away of dozens of generations, there is a unified, complete, and instantly recognizable aesthetic. It is immediately obvious to any visitor that they have entered the Egyptian section, whether in the first dynasty or the twentieth.
There is undoubtedly something terrifying about this continuity—terrifying about the thought that a society based on gross injustice persisted, with its culture nearly unchanged, for a span of time that dwarfs that of our own Western culture. But it is also easy for me to imagine the deep satisfaction enabled by such a complete mythology—a symbolic worldview that decorates every surface, imbues every hour of the day with importance, structures the year and explains the cosmos, penetrates into the depths of reality and even looks beyond the veil that separates life from death. I feel similar stirrings when I look at an illuminated manuscripts from our own Middle Ages, an artifact not so different from the Egyptian scrolls.
In any exhibition on ancient Egypt the mummies are always the stars—those shrunken, dried corpses carefully wrapped and sealed in stone sarcophagi to be sent down the eons. When I was there, a crowd was gathered around a mummy of a woman named Cleopatra, perhaps in the mistaken belief that she was Mark Antony’s famous paramour. Yet the most moving object in the Egypt section, for me, is the colossal bust of Ramesses II. (This was also featured on The History of the World in 100 Objects; you can listen to it here.)
Ramesses II was one of the most effective leaders in all of Egypt’s history. He was born about 1,300 years before the common era, and lived 90 long years, making his reign not only the most iconic, but the longest of ancient Egypt. An energetic general, statesman, and administrator, he was most of all a builder. He presided over the construction of dozens of colossal statues, temples, monuments, and palaces. It was this Ramesses who inaugurated the Abu Simbel complex, whose great temple includes four colossal statues (20 meters, or 66 feet high) of Ramesses himself, carved directly from the hillside. Ramesses was also responsible for the so-called Ramesseum, not a tomb, but a temple complex built for the worship of him, the deified Ramesses, during his reign and after his death.
The bust of Ramesses in the British Museum was taken from this Ramesseum. It is only a fragment: the base of the statue, in which the pharaoh is seated, is still in the Ramesseum. Napoleon’s troops first tried and failed to move the statue; then the British hired an Italian adventurer to do it, who used a combination of pulleys, hydraulics, and old-fashioned manpower. As Neil MacGregor notes, it is a testament to the power and ingenuity of the Egyptians that, 3,000 years later, their statues still require technical tours de forces to move. Imagine the discipline, organization, and sheer amount of sweat and backbreaking effort to move the original stone?
Cracked and battered as he is, the statue still has the effect that its creator intended: the impression of calm omnipotence. The pharaoh looks down serenely from a great height—imperturbable, immovable, eternal. Such a work is clearly the product of a culture in its prime, when artistic execution and social organization were raised to the pitch of perfection. As a mere display of technique, the statue is remarkable: the ability to transport such a massive block of stone, and then to chip away and polish the surface until all that remains is a perfect image of power. And you can imagine how effective these images were as propaganda, in a time before television or telescreens.
In life, Ramesses was as close as any human can get to complete power. In death, he was worshipped as a god. His name and his face have come down to us from over 3,000 years ago. This statue has outlasted whole kingdoms and countries; and there is a good chance it will keep persisting, even when (God forbid) the British Museum is no more. So you might say that, as propaganda, the statue has been an unmitigated success. And yet, Ramesses himself, his empire, and his entire culture—all of them have passed into memory, leaving only their stones and their bones. Impressive as the bust undeniably is, it is also undeniable that it now stands as a sample of Egyptian statuary, to be gawked at by visitors, impressed but certainly not worshipful.
All wood rots, all iron rusts, and everything human turns to dust. Shelley, upon hearing reports of this very bust of Ramesses II, put this sentiment into famous lines:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
The final irony is that those immortal lines, like Ramesses’s bust, have outlasted their makers and will likely last as long as there are humans who worry about the finitude of life.
If there is any hope of immortality, it is through the communication of our ideas—something demonstrated most poignantly by the Rosetta Stone. That ancient document—an administrative decree about taxes and tithes—now stands in the British Museum as a testament to the ability of different cultures in different places and times to understand one another. In the modern world it has become trendy to agonize about the impossibility of translation and the gulfs that separate different cultural worldviews. But humans have been translating since the beginning of history; and the very fact that we can decipher a long-dead language, written in an archaic script, using another translation of an ancient language written in another archaic script, shows that communication can transcend wide differences of perspective.
I have already spent far too much space describing the treasures of the British Museum. But I cannot leave off without a mention of the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon.
The Parthenon, as everyone knows, is the most important and iconic ruin from Ancient Greece. Built during Athens’ golden age as a temple to their patron goddess, Athena, it has been both a church and a mosque in its long life. The Ottomans even decided to use the temple to store ammunition—guessing that their enemies, the Venetians, would never dare to fire at such a hallowed edifice. This guess was incorrect; in 1687 a Venetian bomb detonated the ammunition inside, causing a massive explosion that left only the building’s husk intact. Then in 1800 an art-loving British aristocrat, the Earl of Elvin, in highly dubious circumstances, excavated sculptures and friezes from the ruined Parthenon to decorated his home. But a costly divorce forced him to sell his home and his collection to the British government. As a result, the parts of the Parthenon, in the next chapter of their long and battered history, found their way into the British Museum.
Unsurprisingly, this acquisition is controversial. Imagine if a museum in England had a part of Mount Rushmore. Americans wouldn’t be happy, and neither are the Greeks. The Greek government has been trying to repossess the collection since 1983. There are many arguments averred for sending the marbles back to Greece. The most compelling is the simplest: that the Parthenon is one of the most important cultural monuments in European history, and should be as complete as possible. In any case, the legality of the original transfer has always been questioned: it’s possible that Elvin didn’t have official permission from the Ottoman Empire. In England, public opinion was divided at the time—Lord Byron famously thought it was inexcusable vandalism—and seems to be in favor of returning the collection nowadays. The British Museum is (also unsurprisingly) in favor of keeping the marbles.
For my part, it seems unquestionably just to return the Elgin marbles to Athens. I do admit, however, that I was grateful for the opportunity to see the Parthenon friezes in the British Museum. The display is excellent, allowing the visitor to clearly see the friezes and the statues. If the marbles were inserted back into their original places in the Parthenon (if this is even possible), then they wouldn’t be as clearly visible. And if the marbles were merely displayed in a museum in Athens, then I’m not sure there would be any improvement of presentation. Nevertheless, it does seem that strict justice demands that the marbles be returned.
As for the Elgin marbles themselves—the friezes, metopes, and pediments that line the wall of one enormous exhibit in the British Museum—what is there to be said? The sculptures are likely the most studied and analyzed works of art in Western history; and not only that, they are perhaps the most influential. Almost from the start these works have defined and illustrated classical taste. Indeed, the Parthenon has served as such a ubiquitous model for later artists that it is nearly impossible to respond to them as genuine works of art. They are immediately familiar; you feel that you’ve seen it all before, even if this is your first time in the British Museum.
To the modern eye, the Parthenon sculptures can appear cold, austere, and timeless—perfect human forms carved from perfect white marble. It is scandalous to imagine that these frigid sculptures were once painted with gaudy colors; and inconceivable that, once upon a time, these paragons of artistic orthodoxy were once innovative and daring works that broke every convention.
A visitor to the British Museum can catch a glimpse of the originality of these works if they visit the Babylonian and Egyptian sections first. Moving on from those precursors to the Greeks, you can see obvious continuities—heros and gods, mythological beings and legends, religious processions and rituals—but the changes are even more striking. In the Parthenon, we see a new thing in history: a confident belief in the powers of human intelligence and creativity. Unlike the static and rigid bodies of Egyptian pharaohs, sitting straight up and look straight ahead, we see bodies twisting, turning, leaping, extending, straining—in other words, we see the human body in motion, propelled by its own force. This is not a society that believes in stable order, but in ceaseless striving.
The new perspective is illustrated most clearly by the metopes depicting the centauromachy: the battle between the human lapiths and the half-human half-animal centaurs. In Egyptian mythology, many of the gods were half-animal; and Sumerian palaces were often guarded by the sphinx-like lamassus. In both of these cultures, the natural world, the world of animal life, was seen as a source of power and cosmic order. Yet in the Parthenon the half-animal creatures, the centaurs, are agents of chaos and destruction—creatures who must be conquered and vanquished. For better or for worse, this urge to conquer our own animal nature has been with us ever since.
There are so many more—thousands and thousands more—works that deserve deep contemplation in the museum’s collection, but I will stop here. Yet as I take leave of the British Museum, I want to leave you with one parting thought.
No institution I have seen better illustrates both the enormous strengths and the limitations of the Enlightenment than the British Museum. And because the Enlightenment is very much still with us, it is vital that we understand these strengths and limitations.
Its strengths are undeniable, especially in the context of history. As compared with what came before it, the conception of humanity and history embodied in the museum is undoubtedly an advance. Europeans began to be interested in non-Europeans cultures. Their sense of ancient history began to extend far beyond Ancient Greece and the tribes of Israel. Instead of focusing on their own country or their own religion, Europeans could conceive of humanity as a whole, with a single origin and a common destiny. The museum also demonstrates the democratic spirit of the Enlightenment. The knowledge is put on display for all to see and learn, not sequestered in schools or guarded by jealous academics. Just as the friezes of the Parthenon illustrate the confidence in human intelligence, so does the British Museum exemplify the new, boundless confidence in human reason—the belief that the world is intelligible, that we can communicate our knowledge to anyone, and that our knowledge is not bounded by creed, language, or nation.
But the museum also demonstrates the limitation of this universalist aim. For the idea of a museum that encompasses all of human history relies on the idea that we can create a neutral context in which to understand that history. This underlying notion is clear at a glance: each room—plain, white, full of right-angles—is filled with objects wrenched from their original context. Some of this context is restored, but only as information on panels. My question is: can a modern visitor, looking at a bracelet from ancient Egypt, reading about that bracelet on its accompanying caption, really grasp what this bracelet was to the jewel-maker who created it or the aristocrat who wore it? For comparison, imagine walking into a museum filled with objects from your room, except each object is carefully labeled and sits on its own display. Could any visitor understand what life was like for you?
My point is that there is something inescapably artificial and sterile about the museum. In attempting to create a universal history, a neutral context for information, the museum transforms its objects and imposes a new context. The original meaning of each artifact, how they were used and understood by their creators, is abolished; and instead, each artifact becomes a piece of evidence in a specifically Enlightenment story about the growth of humankind.
To put this another way, the Enlightenment attitude fails to come to grips with how our attempts to understand the world transform what we’re trying to understand. When knowledge is seen as impersonal, existing in a neutral context, simply a matter of seeing and describing, then knowledge becomes blind to its own power. And the British Museum is, among many other things, a demonstration of British power: the financial, political, and military means to scour the world and collect its most valuable objects into one location. It is also a demonstration of British intellectual power: the power to understand all of human history, to see truly and to interpret correctly, to escape provincialism into neutral universality.
I need to pause here. I sound as if I am being harshly critical of the British Museum, and indeed I am. But the truth is that my brief visit was staggering. I saw and learned so much in such a short time that I cannot possibly deny that I think the museum is valuable. The reason I level these criticisms at the British Museum is not because I think this intellectual project it represents is bankrupt or futile, but because, with all its flaws and limitations, with all its political and economic underpinnings, it seems to be the best we have yet achieved in humanity’s understanding of itself. I see these challenges not as reasons to despair—any intellectual project will have its limitations—but as spurs to creative solutions.
Some gentlemen have made an amazing figure in literature by general discontent with the universe as a trap of dullness into which their great souls have fallen by mistake; but the sense of a stupendous self and an insignificant world may have its consolations.
I did not think a book like this was possible. A work of fiction with a thesis statement, a narrator who analyzes more often than describes, a morality play and an existential drama, and all this in the context of a realistic, historical novel—such a combination seems unwieldy and pretentious, to say the least. Yet Middlemarch never struck me as over-reaching or overly ambitious. Eliot not only manages to make this piece of universal art seem plausible, but her mastery is so perfect that the result is as natural and inevitable as a lullaby.
Eliot begins her story with a question: What would happen if a woman with the spiritual ardor of St. Theresa were born in 19th century rural England? This woman is Dorothea; and this book, although it includes dozens of characters, is her story. But Dorothea, and the rest of the people who populate her Middlemarch, is not only a character; she is a test-subject in a massive thought experiment, an examination intended to answer several questions:
To what extent is an individual responsible for her success or failure? How exactly does the social environment act upon the individual—in daily words and deeds—to aid or impede her potential? And how, in turn, does the potent individual act to alter her environment? What does it mean to be a failure, and what does it mean to be successful? And in the absence of a coherent social faith, as Christianity receded, what does it mean to be good?
As in any social experiment, we must have an experimental group, in the form of Dorothea, as well as a control group, in the form of Lydgate. The two are alike in their ambition. Lydgate’s ambition is for knowledge. He is a country doctor, but he longs to do important medical research, to pioneer new methods of treatment, and to solve the mysteries of sickness, death, and the human frame. Dorothea’s ambitions are more vague and spiritual. She is full of passionate longing, a hunger for something which would give coherence and meaning to her life, an object to which she could dedicate herself body and soul.
Lydgate begins with many advantages. For one, his mission is not a vague hope, but a concrete goal, the path to which he can chart and see clearly. Even more important, he is a man from a respectable family. Yes, there is some prejudice against him in Middlemarch, for being an outsider, educated abroad and with strange notions; but this barrier can hardly be compared with the those which faced even the most privileged woman in Middlemarch. For her part, Dorothea is born into a respectable family with adequate means. But her sex closes so many paths to action that the only important decision she can make is whom she will marry.
Dorothea’s choice of a husband sets the tone for the rest of her story. Faced with two options—the young, handsome, and rich Sir James Chettam, and the dry, old scholar, Mr. Casaubon—she surprises and disappoints nearly everyone by choosing the latter. Dorothea does this because she knows herself and she trusts herself; she is not afraid of being judged, and she does not care about status or wealth.
The first important decision Lydgate makes is who to recommend as chaplain for the new hospital, and this, too, sets the tone for the rest of his story. His choice is between Mr. Tyke, a disagreeable, doctrinaire puritan, and Mr. Farebrother, his friend and an honest, humane, and intelligent man. Lydgate’s inclination is towards the latter, but under pressure from Bulstrode, the rich financier of the new hospital, Lydgate chooses Mr. Tyke. In other words, he distinctly does not trust himself, and he allows his intuition of right and wrong to be swayed by public opinion and self-interest.
Dorothea’s choice soon turns out to be disastrous, while Lydgate’s works in his favor, as Bulstrode puts him in charge of the new hospital. Yet Eliot shows us that Dorothea’s choice was ultimately right and Lydgate’s ultimately wrong. For we cannot know beforehand how our choices will turn out; the future is hidden, and we must dedicate ourselves to both people and projects in ignorance. The determining factor is not whether it turned out well for you, but whether the choices was motivated by brave resolve or cowardly capitulation. You might say that this is the existentialist theme of Eliot’s novel: the necessity to act boldly in the absence of knowledge.
Dorothea’s act was bold and courageous; and even though Mr. Casaubon is soon revealed to be a wearisome, passionless, and selfish academic, her choice was nonetheless right, because she did her best to act authentically, fully in accordance with her moral intuition. Lydgate’s choice, even though it benefited him, established a pattern that ends in his bitter disappointment. He allowed himself to yield to circumstances; he allowed his self-interest to overrule his moral intuition: and this dooms him.
(Eliot, I should mention, seems to prefer what philosophers call an intuitionist view of moral action: that is, we must obey our conscience. Time and again Eliot shows how immoral acts are made to appear justified through conscious reasoning, and how hypocrites use religious or social ideologies to quiet their uneasy inner voice: “when gratitude becomes a matter of reasoning there are many ways of escaping from its bonds.”)
Eliot’s view of success or failure stems from this exploration of choice: success means being true to one’s moral intuition, and failure means betraying it. Dorothea continues to trust herself and to choose boldly, without regard for her worldly well-being or for conventional opinion. Lydgate, meanwhile, keeps buckling under pressure. He marries almost by accident, breaking a strong resolution he made beforehand, and then goes on to betray, one after the other, every other strong resolution of his, until his life’s plan has been lost entirely, chipped away by a thousand small circumstances.
Dorothea ends up on a lower social level than she started, married to an eccentric man of questionable blood, gossiped about in town and widely seen as a social failure. Lydgate, meanwhile, becomes “successful”; his beautiful wife is universally admired, and his practice is profitable and popular. But this conventional judgment means nothing; for Dorothea can live in good conscience, while Lydgate cannot.
But is success, for Eliot, so entirely dependent on intention, and so entirely divorced from results? Not exactly. For the person who is true to her moral intuition—even if she fails in her plans, even if she falls far short of her potential, and even if she is disgraced in the eyes of society—still exerts a beneficent effect on her surroundings.
Anyone who selflessly and boldly follows her moral intuition encourages everyone she meets, however subtly, to follow this example: as Eliot says of Dorothea, “the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive.” Eliot shows this most touchingly in the meeting between Dorothea and Rosamond. Although Rosamond is vain, selfish, and superficial, the presence of Dorothea prompts her to one of the only unselfish acts of her life.
From reading this review, you might get the idea that this book is merely a philosophical exercise. But Eliot’s most miraculous accomplishment is to combine this analysis with an immaculate novel. The portrait she gives of Middlemarch is so fully realized, without any hint of strain or artifice, that the reader feels that he has bought a cottage there himself.
Normally at this point in a review, I add some criticisms; but I cannot think of a single bad thing to say about this book. Eliot’s command of dialogue and characterization, of pacing and plot-development, cannot be faulted. She moves effortlessly from scene to scene, from storyline to storyline, showing how the private is interwoven with the public, the social with the psychological, the economical with the amorous—how our vices are implicated in our virtues, how our good intentions shot through with ulterior motives, how our hopes and fears are mixed up with our routine reality—never simplifying the ambiguities of perspective or collapsing the many layers of meaning—and yet she is always in perfect command of her mountains of material.
A host of minor characters marches through these pages, each one individualized, many of them charming, some hilarious, a few irritating, and all of them vividly real. I could see parts of myself in every one of them, from the petulant Fred Vincey, to the blunt Mary Garth, to the frigid Mr. Casaubon, to the muddle-headed Mr. Brooke—almost Dickensian in his comic exaggeration—to every gossip, loony, miser, dissolute, profilage, and tender heart—the list cannot be finished.
Perhaps Eliot’s most astounding feat is to combine the aesthetic, with the ethical, with the analytic, in such a way that you can no longer view them separately. Eliot’s masterpiece charms as it preaches; it is both beautiful and wise; it pulls on the heart while engaging the head; and it is, in the words of Virgina Woolf, “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”