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Into Reverse

Washington Diarist

The search for sublimity in the city is one of the most traditional quests of modernity. Urban life is a sacrifice of nature for culture, but it is not obvious that culture can provide the same exaltations as nature. When I saw Manhattan from 17,000 feet a few days ago, it looked like a folly, a vast vain pile of blocks and cubes into which the air and the light seemed to disappear. In the city, the question of being (I’m dating myself here) is a little ludicrous. What is the metropolitan sublime? The city is built on delineations and differentiations, and its particular beauty is owed to its artifice, to its rejection of stillness, to the almost anarchic spectacle of its many relations. It is a pluralist world. It is not created for oneness or wholeness, or to strike you dumb. Instead it articulately disperses you. Sometimes the art of the city has renounced these profane fascinations for an ontological ambition--as in the late Eliot, or Rothko, or Morton Feldman--but these experiments in timelessness seem almost like protests against the subways and the streets, in the name of a more fundamental plenitude, with no parts. (Critics were quick to discern Friedrich in Rothko.) Sometimes even the most sophisticated man needs to see the sky. The urban-spiritual question is whether the soul can subsist only on the experience of other people. Is the Other--the epic hero of contemporary thought--enough? We have been trained to think so. There is a current in modern philosophy that attempts to confer upon the encounter with other persons a metaphysical dazzle, but this is a romantic mistake: the prosaic character of moral conduct, its secular sufficiency, is an important element of its universality. Materialists, too, aspire to goodness. And there is an older modern tradition that discovers transcendence in the social rapture of the city, in the delirium of the crowd--un bain de multitude, Baudelaire called it. “Not all men have the gift of enjoying a crowd-bath,” he wrote, in which “multitude and solitude are equal.” I am one of those lesser men. I detest crowds and their oceanic effects; for me, they promise only conformity and violence. But last week the disorder of the city delivered another sort of release. It was a sunny morning. The snows were finally melting, and the appearance of the toys that were buried in the deep drifts heartened me. The busyness all around me, which usually I dislike, looked to me only like a lot of life. On my way to work I stopped at a local filling station, and as I stood at the pump I was taken up contentedly with errands and obligations. I phoned a friend to talk about the battle of Marja. I reviewed the plans for Purim. I made a mental note to check on the publication date of Saul Bellow’s letters. I looked at some girls. The public square was a rich and good place to be. And then I heard the tapping of a cane against an oil truck parked nearby, and then against the pump. When I turned around, I saw a hideously mutilated man. He was tall and thin, with a dancer’s body, and dressed in jeans and a red sweater; but there was a crater where his nose would have been, and his upper lip was ripped and pulled and seemed to have been soldered to his cheek. The skin on his face was twisted and flattened, like a mask gone horribly wrong. And he was blind. The deformed man immediately emptied my mind. All my contentment was banished by the shock. For a few moments, he was everything I knew. I am embarrassed to say that pity gave way to fear. It was suddenly an uglier universe. The image of this devastation filled me with a sense of all possible horror. I lived with the shudder for most of the day. My last stop was the flower shop, and I bought thistles.

The metropolitan sublime: another tale, this one from P3. The lowest rung of a parking garage is a forsaken place, a prison without prisoners--the gray, dank netherworld of the urban conceit. When I drove down to the bottom of the cave on a recent afternoon, the luckless man who sits there instructed me to back my car up all the way to the far wall, past a row of cars that were parked perpendicularly to mine. I was listening to Yo-Yo Ma play the love theme from Once Upon a Time in the West, the greatest melody that Puccini never wrote. Maybe it was the long warm line of the music, but when I put the car into reverse and began to move smoothly backwards, something happened. All heaviness, inside and outside, disappeared. As I glided by the parked cars I watched them glide by me, as if I were standing still and they were in motion, and in the steady wafting procession--like the quietly turning pages of those wall calendars in the old movies, or the cherry blossoms loosened by the teasing breezes and floating into the Tidal Basin in early spring--in a sweet moment of indefinite suspension--I had a glimpse of the flow, an intuition of perfect evanescence. It was over quickly, but the gladness was overwhelming. I left the building in a grateful daze, and not even the important street and its important people broke the spell. In that featureless pit, a sensation of infinity! Is there really no place without grace? I do not take kindly to such uplift, but the event in the garage could not be argued away. I strolled around the block to ponder my blessing, and then proceeded to my office, and the more impure transience of my work.

All this, in a city that has never been less sublime. These are shabby days in the capital. I have always admired the White House more than the people who live in it, and the Capitol more than the people who work in it, and the Supreme Court more than the people who sit on it; and this soppy patriotic mysticism is now standing me in good stead. For there are no heroes here now. I do not subscribe to the “ungovernability” thesis, according to which the American system of government is broken because Barack Obama is having a hard time getting his way--he and his party had an opportune hour in which to seize health care reform, but they preferred to view the social emergency under the aspect of eternity and to waste our time with more demonstrations of his powerful mind and his virtuous nature; but there is almost no courage in the political class right now. Everybody is transfixed only by their numbers. They are all falling back on their respective platitudes. The instinct for self-preservation has routed all the finer instincts. There is no longer any dignity in loss: if you lose a fight for a just cause, you are merely a loser. It is an alienating spectacle; and it leaves me in the company of the Americans who “hate politicians,” and pining for private experience, and preferring the worst poet to the best pundit.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.

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