11 May 2007

Romantic facade

I was writing an e-mail to a friend this morning, briefly describing my recent trip to Virginia and Washington, DC, and found myself writing that it felt, to me, like a trip to Disneyland.

I sent the message off and went on with the morning, but my mind kept going back to “Disneyland” as a description. I was writing quickly, not thinking very deeply about it at the time.

Now, I’m thinking. In my previous post, one the photos I posted was of the quote over the Sergeant-at-Arms’ office in the Capitol. As we wandered up and down the halls of that great old building, I saw many other quotes, also painted with elegance above the offices. But that was the only one that made me stop and snap a photo. We had limited time in the Capitol, so I didn’t want to hold the rest of the family – and our two gracious guides – up by shooting everything that attracted my attention. We would have been there for hours. Days, even.

But now, I’m thinking about why that particular quote stopped me in my tracks.

“We have built no temple but the CAPITOL
We consult no common oracle but the CONSTITUTION.”

While his name doesn’t appear with his quote over the doorway of the Sergeant-at-Arms, the man who wrote and spoke those words was Rufus Choate (Oct. 1, 1799-July 13, 1859), a lawyer, politician and orator from Salem, Massachusetts. Choate was a Whig and served two terms in Congress, once in the House and once in the Senate.

Choate wrote those rather striking words as part of an oration, “The Importance of Illustrating New-England History by a Series of Romances like the Waverley Novels,” in which he discussed with eloquence and passion how much better the dryness of historical writings can be appreciated by their fictionalization. He focused on Sir Walter Scott’s “Waverly Novels,” which include “Ivanhoe,” but he also used the example of Greek history. Herodotus, the “father of history” gave us the facts of his times, Choate said, but it was Homer, a blind harper and storyteller, who gave us the beauty, imagination and day-to-day living details of Greek life in “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.”

Choate went on to write about America’s history from his viewpoint about 150 years into it, and how by reading our history after it happens and written up by historians, we may learn dry facts, but there is little that touches us in our day-to-day lives in the dates, events and people we read about. Thus, his argument for the value of historical fiction – “romance” -- in which the writer, after researching exhaustively, writes a story set in times past which includes living, breathing characters, their emotions, their motivations, their clothes and food and even their laughter over a beer in a public house. The “romance” of history, he argues, is what makes it live in our minds today.

It was a fascinating read, Choate’s argument for romance in history. But it wasn’t until I’d nearly reached the end of the long document that I found, finally, the quote that appears above the Sergeant-at-Arms office in the Capitol. I was glad to find it. I wanted context.

He was once again contrasting the ancient world with his own America of 1833. Here’s what he wrote and later said at Salem, Massachusetts near the end of his speech:

“It were good for us to remember that nothing which tends, however distantly, however imperceptibly, to hold these States together, is beneath the notice of a considerate patriotism. It were good to remember that some of the institutions and devices by which former confederacies have been preserved, our circumstances wholly forbid us to employ. The tribes of Israel and Judah came up three times a year to the holy and beautiful city and united in prayer and praise and sacrifice, in listening to that thrilling poetry, in swelling that matchless song, [they] celebrated the triumphs of their fathers by the Red Sea, at the fords of Jordan, and on the places of the field of Barak’s victory. But we have no feast of the Passover, or of the Tabernacles, or of the Commemoration. The States of Greece erected temples of the gods by a common contribution, and worshipped in them. They consulted the same oracle; they celebrated the same national festival; mingled their deliberations in the same Amphictyonic and subordinate assembles, and sat together upon the same benches to hear their glorious history read aloud, in the prose of Herodotus, the poetry of Homer and of Pindar. We have built no national temples but the Capitol; we consult no common oracle but the Constitution. (emphasis is mine) We can meet together to celebrate no national festival. But the thousand tongues of the press – clearer by far than the silver trumpet of the jubilee – louder than the voice of the herald at the games – may speak and do speak to the whole people, without calling them from their homes or interrupting them in their employments. Happy if they should speak, and the people should hear, those things which pertain at least to their temporal and national salvation!”

Heheh. I could be misunderstanding ol’ Choate, but I think this eloquent and thinking man liked the idea of a free press, and that Americans could know their history – in all of its facets -- for themselves and with immediacy, rather than hearing it only later as interpreted by others.

I wonder what Choate would think of the current predicament of the free press in America. Fox News, anyone?

When I read the quote myself that day in the Capitol building, it struck me because it seems that we have built new temples, if not in the form of great buildings, then in the form of money and power, inhabited by a warlike and selfish god. And our leaders seem to have abandoned the oracle of the Constitution in favor of their own, often misguided and even mad, inner voices.

So, where do I find that “Disneyland” feeling from my visit to Washington, DC? The Capitol building, as magnificent and awe-inspiring as it was, with its marble and statuary and illustrated domes, and its patriotic and profound quotes by great historical figures painted over the doors of offices, seems in retrospect like a theme park attraction or a set on a gigantic stage. America’s history lives there – you can feel it, breathe it, see it – but given the current state of our union, all that seems like nothing but a fa├žade, a false front. It seems that the people who work at the Capitol – the representatives and senators elected by us, the American people, who are our future historical figures -- don’t read or consider those great sayings, even though they’re surrounded by them daily.

Perhaps they don’t remember the nearly 231 years of history – living history -- that put all those marble columns in place around them.

4 comments:

Blowing Shit Up With Gas said...

It did give it a different context than just the original quote. I'd originally taken it as a statement about the secular nature of this country (no established national religion, separation of church and state, etc.).

The press, to me, seems to be one of the last truly free things we have. I mean, Ann Coulter has as much right to mouth off as does Al Franken, right? To me, the trick is in developing an understanding about what show/channel/paper/etc. represents what political ideology -- and then attempt to filter out the facts from either in order to develop one's own rational opinion.

However, I totally concur with your final point about our representatives (on both sides, I'd add) failing to consider the wisdom with which this country was founded.

Blowing Shit Up With Gas said...

...my point being, above, more or less, that I think objectivity is a challenge, which perhaps accounts for our simplistic two-party system. In America, it's easier to just be a Democrat or a Republican and simply vote the party line than it is to approach each individual issue on its own merits and decide from there. Besides, even if one did approach each issue individually, there's still the problem that, at the end of the day, you only get to vote for one person -- and that one person probably does not represent your views on all of the issues. So, you have to prioritize them and vote for what is, in your opinion, the least of the presented evils.

Blowing Shit Up With Gas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dragon Laugh said...

Mom, you need to post something. And so, you've been tagged.