Conserving what’s already lost

Ben Novak wrote in response to recent posts in Pierre Ryckmans, and I want to share that here. Ben makes an important point worth sharing.

I asked yesterday: “What are great stone memorials for if not conveying a sense that even though some stories have a greatness that hints at infinity, the storyteller himself was made for death?” I further suggested that without something like spiritual feelings for the physical things, the physical things alone didn’t matter. Ben’s caveat:

I have to take a little exception to your last sentence. Sometimes the feeling goes away for a long period of human time. Then it is most necessary to preserve words or monuments or places, even though they fail to stir men’s minds, for they must be carried through such dry, stony, and desert-like times so that they will be available for when minds are needful of them, and ready once again to be stirred by them.

Those who carry such things through the dry and stony times are those with sufficient imagination such that, though they and their times have no need or perhaps no capacity to respond to the words, they nevertheless can imagine times and men in the future who will. So, the word or words or monuments or places have a double function: first of inspiring men directly to respond to them in action; and second, of inspiring men to have imagination and faith.

At any given time, certain things can seem to be without meaning. Yet then the sun brightens and new light reveals something that wasn’t seen before. A thing that might seem lost (or without purpose) can still be conserved in the hopes that light will reveal its nature to new observers.

I’m thinking of collegiate architecture as a way to apply this point. We can’t tear down in any one generation what previous generations have built up simply because we’re not enthralled with its aesthetic or practical value. While the traditional, elegant buildings tend to have obvious worth, even the little cottages and more recently the uglier buildings of the 1950s-70s deserve conservation in some cases. Because without something glaringly different to jar a future generation out of its own fascinations, a campus can become stiflingly uniform on the one hand or saccharine on the other.

It’s worth at least considering conserving things that consensus/common sense would instinctively reject—because in matters of taste, what’s common is more often simply common to a single generation. And the future deserves to hear and see more of reality than just one generation’s sense of what was important.

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