Sunday, November 16, 2008

Peak Decline

Are we living in an age of decline?

Czeslaw Milosz says that he detects "... a historical law, little known but of considerable moment: the process of decline affects people in ways unknown to them, beneath the threshold of their consciousness." (The Land of Ulro, 1984, p. 228) It is for this reason, he continues, that "the same law by which people are unknowingly affected complicates the task of recreating the past, because it is so hard to tell, in retrospect, what was experienced consciously and what unconsciously." All the same he finds in our age the "logic of precipitous decline," only retarded by those "minute particles of virtue residing in specific individuals, who affect the whole through a complex process whereby each particle or grain, is multiplied by others (on such a process, for example, is founded the ethics of well-executed work.)"

I had occasion to reflect on these words in light of the events of this weekend - spectacularly unremarkable, as they may be, but perhaps for that reason all the more revealing. It involved a fair amount of driving - to suburb and city respectively, the contrast between them indicative of the two-faced nature of decline.

The road to Phoenixville, formerly situated in lovely Chester County farmlands, is littered with suburban mini-mansions and housing developments. Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad if the houses were smaller and less ostentatious, or if they had been built in clustered developments, leaving free large swaths of open land - or better, if they had not been built at all. But there they are - these immense twinkling carbon-devouring giant hulks in the dark landscape, connected by a few old roads built half a century ago, hardly adequate to the needs of their current traffic. One wonders at the heating costs, the driving costs, and the maintenance - now not so obvious, but what about the toll of another ten years on these flimsy materials and pseudo-Tudor (is that the design?) of the jilted-up pasteboard housing stock? I shudder. No surprise that one of the largest local development companies is called Toll Brothers, whose stock has plummeted in recent months. Names are omens. The bells have been tolling on this American way of doing business - it can hardly be called a way of life. It's a way of business too disconnected from sensible existence to be called a way of life. But maybe I exaggerate. Perhaps there is some form of life there - though one never sees people outside or walking around these big houses, and the connecting roads are too narrow to permit joggers, walkers or bicyclists. How much of these do the people living there see, how much is conscious and how much unconscious? Vexing to ask, vexing to wonder.

The other end of the road is North Philadelphia, with its miles upon miles, blocks upon blocks, of row houses - many of them gutted, burned, or crumbling. Lots of people about, at least - kids biking or playing, people hanging around a few stores. Not many stores, to tell the truth. This is not the region of shopping centers and urban malls. I don't think I recall seeing a grocery store anywhere. We asked directions at an auto parts store, where some very helpful people told us where to go. But where do the people buy food? Do they have access to books or magazines? There are libraries, to be sure (I didn't see one) though the Mayor says he's cutting back on them to save Philadelphia money.

Two extreme experiences - the antisociality of the suburbs and the forced sociality of the slum. Psychologically, the slum felt better in the sense of its compactness, though "compactness" is a polite way to talk about a suffocating lack of beauty, of perspective or of prospect. The only open places were the vacant lots, choked with weeds and trash. Yet it is possible to imagine beauty in these places - that they could be renewed, re-imagined, and restored to an urbane and civilized standard. But it is hard to imagine a civic renewal in the suburban developments, which are borrowed finery in a world of borrowed time. Their styles are fake, their premise is anti-civic from the beginning - isolated yet conformist.

How have we become such a people of such monstrous and unseeing obtuseness? How have we managed to deface our landscapes with such artificial imitations of human communities?

"Peak decline" is a paradox, even a diabolic paradox. It is an engorgement for its own sake, yet it is full of human pathos. But the pathos somehow failed to make it into the suburban story, and it became the all-consuming narrative for the slum-dwellers. It's a two-faced problem: either forsaking one's humanity, as in the suburbs, pretending to rise above it; or being devoured by it, wholly submerged as in the slums - being unable to spiritualize and transcend it. It's the lack of human scale. Slum and suburb each represent, in their different ways, material or spiritual impoverishment.

Landscape is the unconscious made visible. Choice and cognition are only the end products of a long gestation of style, habits and expectations. Habits are much harder to transform than ideas, and we are conscious only momentarily of the relationship between what we see and what we expect to see. To become fully conscious in this realm demands what is termed a new "skill set." It means becoming stewards first of all of our own minds. I think this is the chief task of our time.

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