Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Deconstructing the Cathedral

Some students in my Composition classes have asked to see the whole essay I use, in part, in class, to illustrate how clustering and outlining can be used to construct a Profile. Here, then, is the essay - which took Honorable Mention in the Writers' Digest Competition a few years ago in the 'essay' category.

The copy/paste function eliminated all paragraphing and such. It's still readable, though.

Deconstructing the Cathedral
(c) John Desjarlais. All Rights Reserved.

At first, it looks like the typical tangle of tourists debarking from busses at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. But the crowd is larger than the usual mix of pilgrims and panhandlers, and there are a number of native New Yorkers gawking skyward – people who never do this at the risk of being called a tourist. I look too, and notice that the familiar iron web-work of scaffolding has been removed from the just-completed twin towers of Peter and Paul. They are festooned with bright balloons. A taut wire is strung between the towers, and a man in a striped bodysuit is walking the wire, juggling hoops.
“What’s this?” I ask someone.
“Hundredth anniversary of the cathedral.”
Yes, I recall seeing something in The Times about it, I say.
Camcorders hum. The aerialist dances on the wire; I imagine absurdly that the architects sent him there to test its tension, to assess the strength of the towers.

When Charles Jencks popularized the term “postmodern” to describe a movement in architecture which despoiled styles from diverse periods, he might have had the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in mind. New York Times architecture critic Herbert Marchamp once called it “New York’s greatest postmodern skyscraper.” The hulking, two-thirds complete behemoth, the second largest church in the world next to St. Peter’s, has been compared to a grand novel – built in fits and starts, not quite up to the original vision of the work, revised continually, and interrupted by a series of contentious editors. It may be more like a sprawling postmodern novel, lacking a linear narrative with many of its disconnected pieces previously published in disparate journals over several years, a comic self-parody.
Cathedrals as texts narrate the centuries that build them. Medieval structures reflect a unified and cohesive worldview marked by symmetry. God is One, a Unity, and is discerned in the unifying, unchanging principles of mathematics. Seeing God manifest in the underlying coherence of sacred geometry, masons felt privy to the secret knowledge of the divine architect of the (uni)verse.
Furthermore, Christian ethics, like architecture, followed orderly, balanced standards, using the spiritual plumb lines of sacred shapes and numbers: seven cardinal virtues and seven corresponding deadly sins. Avarice, lust, and pride – money, sex, and power in today’s terms – shadowed the monastic ideals of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Paul summed up Christian ethics in the trinity of faith, hope, and love; a cathedral education began with the Trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic.
The Cathedral of St. John narrates a different time, a fragmented century, one that gave us doubters like Sartre and deconstructionists like Derrida. No wonder Muschamp calls it “an existential cathedral, both alienate and engaged.” It is historically characterized by structural chaos and social activism. The first bishop, Henry Potter – really, that was his name – invited black clergy from nearby Harlem to dinner and worked with them to clear area slums. Today, there’s a homeless shelter, a soup kitchen, and an AIDS clinic.
But it could also be called “postmodern” because of its contradictory construction and shifting concept of self. It is not a static structure exemplifying universal precepts built on sure foundations. It does not adhere to the fiction of textual coherence, but views all text like itself as open-ended and the product of many hands. University of Texas rhetorician Lester Faigley once said that

Printing…tended to magnify the distance between the author and the reader, as the author became a monumental figure, the reader only a visitor in the author’s cathedral (italics mine).

So it is with visitors to St. John the Divine; they arrive expecting to “read” a unified whole but they get constant reminders that this is a work in progress: framed blueprints in the narthex, clinging scaffolding, unfinished sculptures in the fleche, piles of blocks heaped in the stoneyard. The cathedral as text is always in process, constructed of competing discourses, and, in an odd way, never set in stone.

The initial 1886 design of George Heins and C. Grant LaFarge was the winning entry of an international competition, and a collection of contra-dictions from the get-go. “A bold and florid piece of eclecticism, more Byzantine than Romanesque within, more Gothic than Romanesque without,” said one reviewer. The first phase of the project called for a central dome topped by a pyramidal tower and lofty spires at the north and south transepts. But the four granite arches and eight buttresses that were to support the central dome sank in quicksand made by underground springs hitherto undiscovered on Morningside Heights, and the original design sank with them. From the beginning, it seems, the cathedral rejected foundationalism and sought a moral mooring somewhere between the rocks of 19th Century optimism and the quagmires of 20th Century uncertainty.
The prize-winning plan was abandoned; the architects were dismissed. Ralph Adams Cram replaced them in 1911 is responsible for most of the cathedral that stands today. He did not use the word “postmodern” but he loathed modernity. As an “anti-modernist” rather than a “postmodernist,” Cram snubbed the modernist dictum that form follows function, designing buildings as criticisms of modern life. Knowing full well that it was an anachronism to build in a 13th Century French Gothic style, he did so, while retaining the Romanesque chancel. Ponderous, rounded arches co-existed uneasily with graceful, lace-like lattices. Goths and Romans always had an ambivalent relationship.
Although Cram railed against modernism and modern technology, his plans were financed by industrial barons who were busy modernizing America. Furthermore, Cram told the patrons of the seven radiating chapels of the apse that they could choose their own architects. The result: an architectural stew, whereby the coherent and cosmic unity of matter and spirit which once defined a cathedral, portraying the order and balance of the Logos (Reason) which created all things, is replaced by multiple perspectives and personal tastes in open repudiation of the reign of rationality and an overriding meta-narrative. In this sense, the cathedral is “postmodern.” At the least, it was meant to be “multi-cultural,” since the radiating chapels were named for the patron saints of countries considered a century ago to be New York City’s ethnic world: Italy, Ireland, Germany, Spain, Scandinavia, France, and “The East.”
While the diversity may appear on the surface as a celebration of American democracy (an impression reinforced by the stained glass windows in the bay chapels recognizing American artists, armed forces, lawyers, labor unions, schools, and sports), Cram despised democracy. He believed Americans would soon withdraw into walled cities governed by feudal hierarchies. This would explain his choice of 13th Century Gothic, as a prophetic (and sarcastic) statement of what the surrounding neighborhoods, and culture, would become.
Perhaps Cram was right. One needn’t go far from the 13 acres of the cathedral grounds to spot the spray-painted territorial markings of rival New York gangs. Two blocks north, a cultural tribalism is redefining the academic turf at elite Columbia University, itself fortified against Harlem with a huge castle-like wall.

The cathedral presides regally atop Morningside Heights, a colossal ark stranded on Ararat. Its buttresses thrust outward and down like massive oars ready for a mighty stroke to launch itself once the Hudson rises high enough with the tide. There is no movement or sound, no clank of rowlocks, but a continuous exchange of thrust and counterthrust storing enough energy to hurl the huge vessel forward on command, freed from the fetters of earth. The apse is a granite prow, and the transverse ribs of the nave ceiling look like the hull of a ship. Nave, after all, is from the same root as navy, reminding worshippers that the Church itself is the ark of God in the tossing storm of the world.
Perhaps to emphasize this idea of the ark, the canons (clergy of the cathedral, having nothing to do with cannons on a ship – well, maybe) host an annual blessing of animals in the nave. Every October, on the Feast of Francis of Assisi, the ark of Morningside Heights boards the likes of elephants, camels, goats, ostriches, and other exotic birds. Parishioners bring their pets to join the eccentric parade and to be aspersed with holy water. Some frightened animals asperse the owners. Stone squirrels watch bemused from above in the pier capitals, while outside in the gardens the cathedral’s peacocks call furiously for help. The cacophonous creatures enter at the cathedral’s west entrance, through massive bronze doors with cast panels of Biblical scenes; one of them portrays the loading of animals onto Noah’s ark. The doorway art looks much too orderly, with creatures in pairs queued up like Canadians at a bus stop. Surely it must have sounded – and smelled – much more like this.

On a normal day, the cavernous nave echoes with the scuff of shoes and the sibilant voices of tour guides. In French, German, Japanese, and who-knows-what, the groups shuffle like millipedes from site to sight. They are not like cathedral pilgrims of old, doing penance or seeking healing from the virtue of the cathedral’s relics. Instead, they exemplify the postmodern condition, living life episodically, passing through many spaces, knowing one will not stay for long in any one place, just long enough for a few impressions and a souvenir or two. It’s life lived as a series of spiritual package tours with options to meet one’s intellectual and emotional budget.
Tourists pack lightly and avoid the burdensome weight of moral responsibility. They move through the spaces other people live in, and they often view them through a lens. Churches everywhere are filled with spiritual tourists like that.

When aerialist Phillipe Petit thrilled busloads of tourists by walking a wire strung between the Twin Towers of Peter and Paul (as he once had done between the other Twin Towers of New York at the time of their completion ) he was demonstrating the dilemma of postmodernism (even if postmodernists despise binaries).
For some time now, this theoretical movement has balanced precariously on a tightrope of denials: that there is no unified, coherent self but only a public projection of private subjectivities each of which is socially constructed; that there are no grand narratives pretending to contain truth but only historically situated, ideologically-embedded discourses constructed for the purpose of establishing and preserving cultural hegemony; that knowledge is a shifting consensus among members of a rhetorical community who pool their perceptions in a process of linguistic negotiation. The result, says Faigley, is that postmodernism does not – cannot – supply a theory of agency or ethics.
Until the question of “the subject” is resolved, he says, postmodernists will walk a precarious wire, unsatisfied with the artificial projection of multiple “selves” on the one hand, while remaining resistant to any concept – Modernist or Christian – of individual consciousness and conscience on the other hand. The trick to keeping this balance between linguistic determinism and Platonic atomism, reply postmodernists, is maintaining some kind of momentum, placing principles from different sites in dialectic. The ethical decision-maker stands not only in one site, but walks between them, balancing the universals and the particulars.
Like an aerialist on a wire.

Construction on the cathedral came to a halt during World War II because the nation needed iron and steel. With peace, the Episcopal church was reluctant to resume work on such a grand building in such a poor neighborhood, concerned that they would appear insensitive to the needy. The church turned to social activism instead.
In 1979, the church decided to hire unemployed young men of Morningside Heights, Harlem, and Newark and teach them the dying craft of stone carving. As conceived by the Very Rev. James Morton, Dean of the Cathedral, architecture and social ethics could be combined. The Cathedral Stoneworks hired master artisans from Europe, and under David Teitelbaum (an historical architecture preservation advocate and former real estate developer), “the little shop that could” employed 65 at-risk teens and all the modern technology that Ralph Adams Cram would have despised: computers, lasers, and digital cameras.
Three computer specialists operate large robotic saws and drills that do most of the cutting and shaping. But it’s young men from Spanish Harlem with names like Angel Escobar and Eddie Pizarro who work the details, chipping away for 10 hours a day on Indiana limestone blocks to shape textured window jambs, gargoyles, tiny squirrels, and saints.
The young carvers, then, learn to carve by carving. They learn to build by building. This is how people are built, too. As Aristotle said, “None of the moral virtues arises in us by nature,” but character (ethos) is the result of ethike (ethics, or more literally, habits):

The virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts, as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them; for example, men become builders by building.

Ethics, Aristotle tells us, are a practice, not a position. They are not mere dictums determined in advance and applied to situations later. They are constituted by actions within situations. “By doing the acts that we do in our transactions with others, we become just or unjust,” says Aristotle. The apostle James may have had something similar in mind when he wrote, “Be not hearers of the Word only, but doers.” Such actions may lead to “ethike,” or “habits,” but insofar as they are self-conscious and self-critical, mindful of the power they exert for good or ill, they constitute ethike.
Taken this way, postmodern ethics do not necessarily contradict the historical Christian ethic which the cathedral also nominally represents. Resisting all other powers that would pull us down, we make such decisions and act upon them while trying to manage the other details of our lives, like juggling so many colorful rings on a wire. We keep the universals and the particulars in a healthy tension. To take one position, and to stay there, as some “absolutists” insist, is to fall. To walk anywhere you like, however, as the “subjectivists” suggest, is to fall just as hard. The truth is to keep moving, to keep acting justly, knowing that we will be fine as long as we are anchored to the twin towers of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.


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