Sep 2 2016

Cryptic Ramblings on Rebuilding Community

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Cryptic Ramblings on Rebuilding Community

“We become so reductive when we pluck examples out of context.”

–Walter Jackson Bate[1]

Who says all post-industrial towns need saving? Is it all darkness on the edge of their city limits, the borders of lamp-forbidden hermit kingdoms, and Springsteen’s Badlands? Are these towns stuck in a new dark age, “betwixt the world destroyed and world restored?”[2] But how could those ages have been dark, full of “dim sadness,”[3] when gold is the only color named in Beowulf?

To revitalize these communities, and their apparent crumbling churches, why not three-dimensionally print new Notre Dames for them? Yet that would only devalue the original cathedral, commodify the creation. Can replicas ever evoke revival?

Agriculture once dominated some of these post-industrial towns. I once asked the Danes for wisdom. They told me Beowulf was not a farmer but a fisherman. (Perhaps he farmed the seas.) Boethius observed that all farmers are wed to Fortune, yoked to Fate, thrown by weather like Beowulf and his shipmates.[4]

Bureaucrat Boethius was “prompted to sing,”[5] while squire Sancho declared: “I can only tell a story the way I learned it in my country,”[6] because “we see not all letters in single words, nor all places in particular discourses.”[7]

The mercenary Beowulf was hired to provoke Grendel and interrupt his trolling,[8] while the martyr Boethius came to disrupt the wicked,[9] so let us moderns “try adventurous work,”[10] and cause mischief upon all that has gone wrong already. Let’s stir the shit (and troll the trolls)—to quake and quicken the stagnant cesspools where the mothers of monsters lurk. All governments are inherently obscure, because that is what they seek, which is why Beowulf and Boethius came to churn the murky waters clear. So should we.[11]

Yet it may not matter for the moderns that the ancients provoked Grendel, for while vagrants are forever among us, monsters have ceased to be news.[12] Yes, Grendel was a kind of vagrant, but all laws against vagrancy accomplish nothing.[13]

Lord Bacon warned of readers who tend to turn authors into dictators,[14] and certainly dictators masquerading as governors are much more dangerous than monsters in the guise of trolls.

NOTES

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[1] The Burden of the Past and the English Poet. MA: Harvard UP. 1970. p. 130.

[2] Milton, Paradise Lost, XII, 1–5.

[3] Milton, Paradise Lost, X, 23.

[4] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy II, i, prose.

[5] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, I, iv, prose.

[6] Cervantes, Don Quixote, I, xx.

[7] Jonson, Timber: or Discoveries.

[8] Beowulf, 99–117.

[9] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, I, iii, prose.

[10] Milton, Paradise Lost, X, 254–55.

[11] Bacon, Francis. Advancement of Learning, II, xxiii, 47.

[12] More, Utopia, I.

[13] More, Utopia, I.

[14] Bacon, Advancement of Learning, I, iv, 5.


Jul 22 2016

Big Philanthropy and Small Towns

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Big Philanthropy and Small Towns

Gracy Olmstead wrote the other day about rebuilding post-industrial towns and concluded:

There are other ways we can consider saving America’s towns. One I have been mulling over lately is the role wealthy individuals can play by boosting local commerce via their patronage (providing microloans, sponsoring vocational programs, providing grants and endowments, et cetera).

Recently, I’ve been reading New Harmony, Indiana: Like a River, Not a Lake (2015), a memoir by the late philanthropist Jane Blaffer Owen (1915–2010), someone whom I think somewhat fits the criteria Olmstead has been mulling over.

Like the famous architect, in terms of landscape planning, urban design, and cultural influence, Mrs. Blaffer Owen might very well be considered the Frederick Law Olmsted of New Harmony. Originally from Houston and the daughter of two oil heirs—her maternal family included founders of Texaco, her paternal, Exxon––Jane Blaffer studied under Paul Tillich and later married one of the great-great grandsons of utopist Robert Owen (1771–1858). They then moved to Owen’s home in New Harmony which she helped revitalize and preserve by starting things like the Robert Lee Blaffer Foundation, whose mission continues “to preserve, promote and support, financially, and otherwise, the various historic and educational attributes of New Harmony.”

Mrs. Blaffer Owen also oversaw building a Roofless Church for her adopted Indiana community as well as commissioning various sculptures around town which can be seen in the photographs and illustrations on nearly every other page of New Harmony––one of the most beautifully crafted modern books I’ve ever handled––right up there with Jung’s Red Book and Umberto Eco’s Book of Legendary Lands (2013).

So, for its aesthetics, Indiana University Press should be commended.  Yet the text, at times, lacks organization. If readers prior to opening this book have never heard of New Harmony, Indiana or its founder––the Welsh social reformer Robert Owen––they might feel as I did: like they’ve eavesdropped upon the middle of an ongoing conversation without ever having been invited.

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But I read New Harmony because it was a gift from my grandmother after its editor Nancy Mangum McCaslin came to a reading and signing in Lampasas, Texas, the hometown of Mrs. Blaffer Owen’s mother. And I too spent the first seventeen years of life in this small central Texas town of nearly 7,000. (The second seventeen years have been spent sixty miles south in wyrd Austin.) I too still have family back home and maintain minimum ties and tabs there—just as Rod Dreher now roves between Starhill and Baton Rouge.

Lampasas is a land of springs lying on the edge of a desert. Once dubbed “the Saratoga of the South,” it has withstood Comanche attacks, biblical floods, and even a visit from gunfighter John Wesley Hardin. And in 2016 the town seems to still be striving––yet still surviving––with or without buckets of philanthropic oil money. Since I left in 1999, the population remains about the same. Its public school population, however, has gone down. The sports teams used to compete with the bigger city schools from Waco, Killeen, and Austin, but now the schools they play against are mostly smaller, rural, and geographically closer.

Although it took me seven years to earn a bachelor’s degree, perhaps, because I remained in Austin after attending university, I too am modestly guilty for some of the “brain drain” from Lampasas. And I often wonder if the town compensated for these changes by making itself a more accommodating place for people to retire to, or tour through, rather than grow up in.

But the citizens of Lampasas are bettering the cultural health of their community, with neither my aid nor that of an oil baroness like Mrs. Blaffer Owen. For example, the Perception Creative Art School was founded in March of 2009. In 2005 an unused lot of land owned by the city was transformed into the Hanna Springs Sculpture Garden. Since 2008, Vision Lampasas has commissioned nine murals on what were once blank walls scattered around town.

One mural, “Small Town…. Big Sound,” displays a panorama of local musicians spanning generations and genres, including songwriters, gospel groups (both black and white), rock bands, country artists and their Tejano counterparts. I’ve known some of these musicians or their relatives, some now dead, others still alive. The conservative in me loves this mural for its community-memory-building capabilities; and the liberal in me loves the true diversity of musical talent acknowledged and celebrated in a single work of art.

But another mural, “Patriot,” makes for a hodgepodge of Trumpesque clichés. It’s just a bunch of eagles and flags all coated in crimson, gold, ermine and azure. While the winner of the mural design contest should be commended for donating their financial award to a charity for veterans––and they can further be applauded for not adding any stars-and-bars to the mix––the content of “Patriot” remains utterly anti-creative. It looks like the generic template that an artist would be given when commissioned to paint a patriotic mural, but nothing more.

Yet confirming patriotic imagery is not the same as affirming actual patriotism, and while Oscar Wilde got it right when he said, “all bad poetry springs from genuine feeling,” I still try to remember that the perfect must not be made the enemy of the good.