Friday, December 19, 2008

Why are there no Monumental Wonders of the Modern World?

I was walking back from a meeting in Paris this morning and passed by the Arc de Triomphe. It is truly a magnificent structure, quite large, decked with all sorts of fantastical and impressive sculptures. One usually sees pictures of it from quite a distance, so its immensity was surprising. That, and its familiarity, tend to diminish what is actually a very impressive thing.

Apropos of my recent blog post on being able to imagine alternate realities, as I walked by, I contemplated what an extraordinary amount of both time and money must have been expended in the Arc’s construction in the early 1800s. Construction was begun in 1806, but the Arc was not fully completed until the mid 1830s. It took hundreds of men more than twenty years to build what is simply a monument to some sort of greatness.

It occurred to me that the modern world has never even attempted such a monument on anywhere near such a scale. A comparable effort today consisting of thousands of men toiling for tens of years, with modern engineering methods and modern building materials, would be mind boggling in its grandeur and sophistication. Our newest monuments, such as the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, are such small endeavors in comparison as to not even be mentioned in the same breath.

Of course the modern world does build impressive structures; the new World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, at a cost of tens of billions and construction time nearing ten years, will certainly be impressive. But our biggest buildings today are all commercial endeavors – their patrons spend the capital required with the express intention of receiving a return on that investment. And they look like commercial endeavors.

Can you imagine spending such a sum or amount of time constructing a massive monument which does nothing other than celebrate some sort of greatness? The thought is absurd.

It made me wonder why the modern world has no great monuments.

A couple of thoughts occurred to me:

First, monuments of this scale generally require egos. If you think about the wonders of the ancient world: the pyramids; the Taj Mahal; the Arc de Triomphe (I know, that’s not really ancient, but you get my point), they all were commissioned by a king, emperor or dictator. In the Arc’s case, it was Napoleon Bonaparte, returning from victory at Austerlitz.

Well, none of the countries of the modern world which can afford such largesse have any kings, emperors or dictators. We’re all liberal democracies.

Second, most of these great things were built to celebrate some great victory by someone over somebody else. Well, as Francis Fukuyama pointed out in the early 1990’s, with the ascension of liberal democracy as the government of choice among the first world, history is essentially over (one could certainly argue about the recent rise of Islamic Fundamentalism – Is there a new monument in our future?).

Finally, and this is a point closely related to the first, a liberal democracy is not wont to squander its resources doing something so inane as building a monument. It would much rather spend its money providing for its people or investing in its infrastructure.

Now, I am not naïve enough to actually believe that history is over. But given these prerequisites for grand monument-building, it makes me wonder when, and under what circumstances, the next great wonder of the world will be constructed. If Fukuyama is really correct, the answer is never.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

More Notes from Europe

I rented a car this time. Actually, I prefer to drive rather than take trains. I become more intimate with foreign lands if I have to negotiate their roads.

European cars are much like American ones. The differences are small, but can be irritating. The most obvious differences are the placement of switches, etc., especially those surrounding the steering wheel.

When driving a car, motions like hitting the wipers, bright lights or cruise control are second nature. One doesn’t think about where the blinker switch is.

On the car I’ve been driving today, everything is reversed compared to what I’m used to. When I try to hit the blinkers, I end up washing the windshield. I think I must have the cleanest windshield in the Northern hemisphere today. I give it a good soaking at every corner.

I also have trouble with the lights. On the way to Amiens this evening I was in the left lane, traveling very fast just behind another car. It had been raining slightly, and the roads were dirty, so this time I really did need to clean the windshield. Instead, of course, I flashed the high beams at the poor guy in front of me, even though we were already traveling at something like 180 miles per hour. Being a good driver like Europeans are, he immediately switched over to the right lane so I could pass him. Being embarrassed that I’d just flashed my high beams at him, I couldn’t really slide in behind him inconspicuously. So I sped up to pass, well aware of how fast I was already going.

I was driving a Mercedes diesel. Well, diesels have a lag before acceleration kicks in. So when I stepped on the gas, nothing happened, especially since I was already pretty much cruising. So then I really stepped on the gas, just as the lag was over, and shot by the other guy at what must have approached 250.

He must have been thinking to himself "wow, that dude must really be in a rush..."

Gotta run, more later.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Notes from my Europe Trip

Sitting on the plane heading home from Hamburg, here are some random thoughts from the last few days:

• Daily life entails many more interactions with random people than one realizes until one is self-conscious about language. It turns out that we have short conversations with people all the damn time: the flight attendant; the taxi driver; the chick that you bought an Orangina from at the bodega; the bellhop; the maid walking down the hallway. Usually when I am traveling to Europe, I’m either with Teresa or local management and they do the talking. This time, I was mostly alone.

• My initial inclination upon reaching France is always to begin these conversations in French, especially if it is as simple as “bonjour!” Most people recognize a foreign accent immediately and helpfully revert to English. Some don’t recognize the accent, and continue to say something, often incomprehensible to me, in French, and then I have to figure out what to do: either stupidly nodding my head, pretending that I know French better than I do, or saying “excuse me?” in English. Either way, I feel stupid.

• This time, I only spent two days in France and then sped onto Germany. The change in language threw me for a loop, and thus I was generally mute with a nod of the head when greeted with a “guten tag.” Most people recognized the difficulty and continued on with comments about the weather or something in English. Again, I felt stupid. The strangest thing happens to me in this situation, though: when I respond to them, I’m speaking English with a weird German accent, as if that’s going to help them understand me. I can’t do anything about it. I sound like Mike Myers or some other silly comedian doing a parody of a Nazi. I can only shake my head in disgust after the short meeting is over.

• Germans, in Hamburg at least, are painfully polite. The best way to describe this is their behavior at crosswalks. Hamburg is a big, bustling city with even more pedestrians than cars. Stoplights and crosswalks are very carefully marked and lighted. The funny thing is, everyone obeys the crosswalk lights, all the time. I happened to be at a crossing of two one way streets, both very narrow, with no traffic on them at all. As I approached the intersection, people started piling up at the corner, obviously waiting for the light to change. I got to the corner, and looked down the tiny street – it could not have been more than 15 feet across – and saw that there was not any traffic in sight, anywhere. And yet not a single person was venturing across. About twenty people had piled up on the sidewalks on either side of the street, and they all stopped and waited, some picking up their cellphones and looking at email or something. The light changed, and they all flooded across the street. Having lived in New York for many years, it was very odd.

• I stopped by my grandparent’s old house from 1955-1959 at 47 Harvesthuderweg, right on the lake just down from the American Consulate. The street was gorgeous, and I can only imagine that the Finlays led a charming life back then. The house itself was under construction, so it was hard to see what it might have been like in its former glory.

• If I have time, I’ll write a funny story about the plane ride to Paris, where I suffered uncomfortably close living quarters with a French couple for about seven hours.