Saturday, May 26, 2012

My Top 10: On Beauty and its Discontents, Part 1

Until I moved to Western Mass, I had never lived anywhere that is truly beautiful. For twenty-five years, I lived within the same twenty-miles stretch from the suburbs of Philadelphia to West Philadelphia.

The suburbs are not beautiful. I am happy to debate this point. As a product of post-war consumer society, the suburbs represent many of the social, economic, and cultural practices that are wrong with the U.S. I cannot find the beauty in strip mall after strip mall, punctuated only by massive homes in gated communities. The sense of entitlement that accompanies extreme affluence is oppressive and unwelcoming.

I admit that Philadelphia has its beautiful qualities. I would take a cityscape over suburban sprawl any day. For two years, I enjoyed a fantastic view of the Philadelphia skyline from my east-facing high-rise dorm room. Lest anyone think otherwise, I have a special affinity for "the city" that I will take up in part 2 of this meandering reflection on the relationship between humans and their environment, or if you prefer, society and space.

I had only visited Amherst twice before I moved. Similar to many decisions in my life, I made this choice without enough reflection. I relocated for school; that was an adequate reason at the time. Even if I had attempted it, I could not have predicted the ways in which living in a rural area would affect me.  

I never paid attention to the seasons until I moved to Amherst. In Western Mass, the seasons are an unpredictable assault. The beauty of the fall foliage is spectacular. Yet, enduring six-months of a pale and grey snow-covered landscape can make one insane, depressed, and restless. Spring arrives late in New England (gratefully, it was four to six weeks early this year), but it is accompanied by a sense of relief that the worst is over. Quickly, the humidity and oppressive heat arrives. As someone who used to live here told me, “You freeze until you melt.”

While I can now find the beauty in each of these seasons, and in pastoral life more generally, there is something profoundly unsettling about living in a rural area. Like any academic, I decided to look to other academics to explain my discontent.

What is the relationship between the rural landscape and its inhabitants? How has the postmodern experience affected rural life? Am I discontent because I have lived in a place where the effects of modernism and postmodernism are unrelenting? 

As Marshall Berman wrote in his defense of modernism, do I miss “an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world—and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are…” and the “maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradictions, of ambiguity and anguish”?[1] Or, to take one portion of David Harvey’s rendering of postmoderism, do I long for the “ephemerality, fragmentation, discontinuity, and the chaotic…” that characterizes the experience of postmodernity?[2]

To be continued…

[1] Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), 15.
[2] David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers Ltc., 1990), 44.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Modernity existentially denies embodiment, in the fullest sense of that word, considering the human person as a mere glede of consciousness thrown by happenstance into this or that random physical confluence of race, sex, culture, history, language. Rural life puts the lie to that denial, and proves to you in your bones that you are *not* able to remake yourself at your whim into this or that, but that your being is *given* to you and not *constructed* by you, that your role only superficially consists in willful self-construction, but deeply and pervasively consists in reception and acceptance. Modernity would be unthinkable without urbanity.