A year ago, Violeta and I sat in a sidewalk cafe in Rome, a city of blowing exhaust, wretched traffic, and illegible graffiti spray-painted left and right. Talking was difficult above the blatt of trucks too big for narrow streets. Around the city ancient monuments slowly dissolved in dilute carbonic acid and turned gray from drifting soot. Italians, not particularly agreeable people, passed by in the international jeans-and-sweatshirt scruff that is less a style than an absence of thought.
We had reached the fag end of a couple of weeks of wandering around the country, mostly from Naples south to Sicily. Vi had not been out of Mexico before. I was pleased to find that she was a born traveler, relentlessly practical and unfazed by anything. It was a blessing. Being on the road with an hysteric quickly palls.
I think she had expected Italy to be sophisticated and stylish. Hadn’t Hemingway said so? Didn’t the movies show such things? Instead she concluded, correctly, that Naples and Rome were barely distinguishable from her native Guadalajara: noisy, dirty, ugly, walls defaced by punks in need of a horsewhipping. I was less surprised, having seen the symptoms in many places. A rule of near-universal application is that anything lovely is old, and anything new like everything else new.
It is curious. Ancient Rome had little disposable income, and ancient Greece less. Building a Parthenon required great effort, as did the Gothic cathedrals. Yet they were built, and statues carved, and fountains made to play in the downtowns. Emperors built these things to glorify themselves, rich men to impress. Whatever the motive, they were built and adorned their times.
Today, with resources thousands of times greater, with bulldozers, steel, and unlimited money, we build little but square boxes and freeways. Our civilization has become a sprawling eyesore.
I had made the mistake of contracting a group tour, thinking that Vi might find it less stressful than my normal get-there-and-figure-it-out approach. As it turned out she detested the contrived jollity and brainless lectures as much as I did. In Naples we broke away and just wandered. It is a grimy nasty city, but speckled with anomalous churches from other times.
I remember one in particular. The interior was dark and hushed. The walls, of thick stone, excluded the noise of traffic. It was empty except for us. The vaulting, stained glass, and frescoes were exquisite and, as always, unlike any others I had seen. These things were not designed at corporate, one size fits all. Vi, being Catholic, felt herself to be in something that she was part of. We went our different ways to ponder in the gloom. Some things you do not do with others.
I wondered what life had been many centuries back when the church would have loomed larger and humanity, smaller. Any church diminishes against the scale of monumental office buildings. Eventually they become little more than tourist attractions except to dwindling numbers of believers. It must have been different when humanity was still a minor occurrence against the landscape. The tenor of existence has to change when you walk or ride horseback through wild forests and mountain passes, seldom seeing others.
Capri was hideous. Mobs of tourists covered every inch of the place that wasn’t occupied by trinket shops selling commemorative baseball caps. The island itself was startling in its clouded peaks and sharp declivities against the Mediterranean. Tiberius’ taste was perhaps not limited to small boys (if that wasn’t slander). But how do you enjoy such splendor with fat people from Rhode Island squalling at each other, “But Charlie, the guide said….”?
There are too damned many people in the world, and they have too much money. They also have very little taste. The United States has fully achieved dictatorship of the proletariat, and other countries follow. Karl would be proud. Further, the unworthy have credit cards and so rush off in droves to have a European Experience as they might to Disneyland or Sea World. They may not know just where in Europe they are, or who the Normans were, or what or when the Reformation was, but that isn’t the point. Just what is, I don’t know.
The age of Mass Man is at last upon us. Globalization, with its attendant homogenizing, runs apace. Beijing begins to have traffic problems, like those of everywhere else. It also looks like anywhere else. An urban shopping mall in Guilin differs little from one in Tokyo or Georgetown or Nong Khai. Like supermarkets, they provide things people want at prices they will pay, and cannot be called evil. Yet they are uniform, drab, and somehow disheartening. Square ugly office blocks and square ugly apartment building appear overnight around the globe. They are built so because they are cheap and efficient. These seem to be the only considerations today.
A Claudius or a Trajan might have built imposing buildings with the help of the best artistic talent to be found. Corporations have no interest in such things. Neither does the United States, which is as esthetically impoverished as it is industrially fecund. Nor, as far as I can tell, does any other country, though many show more respect for what they have.
In America today, if there is public statuary at all, it will be bought by a committee of bureaucrats who, knowing nothing of the matter, will be gulled into buying some atrocity approved by an Art Consultant. A new library, if there are new libraries now, will be a brick box. The symphonies die, the arts metamorphose into “entertainment,” and careful writing is regarded as a gas-station attendant might regard Sophocles in the original. The final triumph of the unwashed has occurred.
I think it sad. The distinctiveness and eccentricity of things lent flavor to life. When Bourbon Street turns into a Bourbon Street Theme Park, which it has, when Virginia’s horse country gives way to identical subdivisions named Brookview Mews and Brook Run Dales, and the Vatican is so jammed with people from Ohio that you can’t move, we lose something.
I sometimes think that the chief difference between cockroaches and people is an insufficiency of legs. But I am a curmudgeon.
Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and the just-published A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be.