By William Beaudoin
“In order to be what the world is always meant to be, a home for men during their life on earth, the human artifice must be a place . . . for activities not only entirely useless for the necessities of life but of an entirely different nature from the manifold activities of fabrication by which the world itself and all things in it are produced” – Hannah Arendt
On Saturday mornings I make a trip to Central Park. It’s a new tradition, in its infantile but formative first few weeks, and I can already tell how much I need it. I pass through the city as if carving against the grain of a particularly hard wood, a hickory or maple, arriving at the subway groggy, and this past Saturday, quite cold. At Union Square the stop is recessed into the underside of a building, it’s entrance, exuding hot air, flanked by a grocery store and the homeless. I flit past both and down the stairs, my feet slipping slightly from the rain and mud they’ve accrued in a few short blocks, and take off my jacket. Time moves just a little quicker when you’re warm. Soon I am subsumed in the warmth of the tunnels and standing, holding a rail, watch the stillness of my fellow passengers against the rock of the train car. They create effigies of themselves, retreating behind headphones or downcast eyes in the crowd. Their outline, their physical form, is not unlike the monuments of great men and women I will see emerging from the subway at 72nd, who are encased by trees and green instead of dirt and harsh florescent lighting. Riding the subway, dutifully taking part in a commute that has revolved for a hundred years, these people are connected to history as well, but represent only their own individuality. Their thoughts have not been reified or transfigured into bronze. Flowing and alive, intended not for use but “thought for thought’s sake” they constitute a home for the human artifice that a monument, despite it’s striving, can never reach.
I go to Central Park every week for the nature. It’s the only place I know of in New York that can provide me with the same sheer amount of bark, water, leaves, and animals that Minnesota supplied so readily. I often sit at the trunks of trees, staining the seat of my pants with dirt. Their presence is calming; trees grow organically with time and remind me that it is still there, moving as slowly as the leaves that fade to brown above me, or the trunk that thickens and pushes upwards imperceptibly against my shirt. I’ve fallen asleep like this, with the light and rain filtering through the canopy lazily like dust.
The monuments of Shakespeare or Morse, picked out from time and stubbornly resisting any degradation, stand out amidst the natural, like little declarations of morals lining the pavement. When walking on the paths I often try and think of how they got where they are, and invariably conjure up a long receipt of proposals, government meetings, and stiff, mechanical debates over appropriateness that underscore the intention behind monuments and their desire to be used. When I look even closer at the material around me I begin to see that they are not even the people they claim but instead their simulacrum; they exist as their own entity, blown up, true to themselves rather than the person, an abstraction of what it is the names on their bases represent.
We usually think of monuments as a way to respect the past and inform the present but this is only partly true. Monuments attempt to step outside of history rather than represent it, and any exchange they have with the present is under the penumbra of didacticism. They abound in public space, an attempt to impress morals upon the people walking beneath them that will further society. I look to a monument of some important man, to it’s clouded metaphors and symbols, it’s size and impenetrable surface, and it says to me, “You are living in the world I created”. It may whisper to me about the beauty of its form, but the desire to be used and learned from always bears through.
Monuments, with their abstraction of history and morals that need to be used and learned from, can never truly last.
At about noon I left Central Park and headed back to the subway. The rain had begun to fall with urgency and I moved between trees like towering umbrellas, pausing by their trunks to look longingly at what I would visit again next week. In the train home I sat with my knees pressed together, attempting to not take up any extra space as the seats around me filled with old women and children shaking off water, men in suits, teenagers by themselves or with friends, the destitute and the kind. I looked at their faces. All were silent and still, creaking through a tunnel and thinking for themselves.