Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Temple of the Muses

There’s a small room on the western side of the British Museum—right next to the Elgin Marbles—that is one of my favorite places on earth. It contains Roman copies of Greek statues; each one either a god or a godlike mortal.

One of them is a victorious athlete tying a fillet around his head. All of his features—the slightly bent leg, the tilt of the neck, the modest genitals—display the relaxation that attaches only to tremendous bodily power.

In the center of the room is a crouching Venus, whose soft limbs curl around her body in a delicate mixture of shame and suggestiveness.

There is also a statue of Bacchus. Far more languid than the athlete at the top, this sculpture is tranquil in a different way. Without any tension, he stands sedate, completely empty of worry. Nothing can disturb this god’s simple, sensuous happiness.

Here is the flower of youth and beauty, the most fleeting thing in the world, frozen forever in marble. These statues stand above the muddy world of flesh, freed even from sexual passion. In room #23, you get to breathe this Olympian atmosphere for as long as you decide to stay. 

A museum, true to its name, is a temple of the Muses. It has been true for thousands of years that a temple preserves its purity by shutting out everything profane. Here in the British Museum—in the Vatican Museums too, and in the Met—a nervous soul can be safe from the snapping teeth of the world. It’s best if they’re completely empty: just before a museum closes, it’s sometimes just you and the gods in there. Good museums do not acknowledge the outside. They are of course free of charge for anyone who wants to go in, but they are also protected from the hum from the street—not to mention from the postmodern hatred of beauty. A silent, lovely place is all they can—and do—provide. That, and an encounter with carnal, corporeal gods.

Music halls, too, should do their best to meet this standard of pure, removed, and godly beauty. It’s a tired complaint that symphonies and opera-houses risk becoming irrelevant if they refuse to play new and experimental music. “If you just do the classics, you turn into a museum,” says a guy named Keith Geeslin, and a horde of sophisticated professionals agree. You can probably predict my reply: of course an opera house should be a museum! By God, there ought to be some refuges in the world for someone revolted by the glibness of modernity. At the symphony I don’t want to hear anything relevant to the modern day. In fact, I want something as defiant of modernity as possible. I want to spend at least some time in a sacred and enchanted grove, where I can commune with a tranquil holiness that’s not available at all on the street outside.

After all, we’re surrounded by petty strife and ugliness every day. The aesthetic impoverishment of our everyday lives is too grim to be brought up often. But I’ll mention it here: modern cities are grey, blind monsters. Their cyclopean size is matched only by the constant cannibalism on their streets. (A crammed bus, honked at for blocking the box, lurches into the crosswalk, where it’s cursed at by livid pedestrians. Etc. etc.) Surprisingly and amazingly, there are places in cities—museums—where one can escape all this, and there will be as long as they aren’t invaded by the rich and tasteless.

Now let me admit my motive for writing this. A little while ago I condemned mysticism for leading souls into the formless abyss. It is ruinous to despise ordinary life, and to chase after unreal shadows. But there is an alternative to both drab life and and nihilist mysticism: you can surround yourself with earthly beauty. A museum is a repository of that beauty. Bacchic, otherworldly music leads one to despise the visible world, but a marble statue can inspire love for it. A beautiful sculpture gives you a glimpse the godliness that actually does, ever so slightly, peek into our reality. Now, seeking beauty in this way is just as much a flight from the evil of the world as mysticism. But instead of shattering you, it leaves you whole—wholer, in fact, than you were before.

1 comment:

Miguel Monteiro said...

Always the godlessed epicurean.