Highways and Cathedrals

During our not-so-recent discussion of Juliana Spahr, there was some mention of the spoils of the future and those technological advances which seem only to set us back.  Spahr addresses senseless wars, cell phone conversations about loneliness, celebrity worship, our “alien planet” and “coal-black earth,” among other things.  But when the paranoia of our world in its present state began to take over, I thought of something David Byrne says in  True Stories.  “Highways,” he observes, “are the cathedrals of our time.”  Granted, it can be difficult to see the proliferating system of interstates and roadways, particularly in the United States, as anything but a concrete takeover of our most pristine natural spaces.  But I’m challenged to also consider the ingenuity and planning that have gone into the evolution of human transportation, as well as the manual and mechanic labor or even the amount of time — voluntary or not — we spend in transit.  Where would America be without the compulsory and expansive migration from East to West?

“Sauntering the pavement or riding the country byroad here then are faces, / Faces of friendship, precision, caution, suavity, ideality, / The spiritual prescient face, the always welcome common benevolent face… / The welcome ugly face of some beautiful soul…” so Whitman wrote in Leaves of Grass.  It is not difficult for me to contrive Walt’s opinion of the pavement itself as a kind of “welcome ugly face of some beautiful soul,” that is, an articulation (however sordid) of man’s dearest and most deeply held desires for freedom, discovery, connectedness.  In his legacy, many of the poets we’ve read this semester seem to be at odds with the detriments of a modern world, and even desperate in their attempts to resuscitate some modicum of pure, unadulterated beauty.  I imagine many of us are equally pressed to mediate between the extremes of man-made progress and natural preservation.  But I think Walt Whitman and David Byrne would have agreed that there is always something magnificent to be discovered, even in the “post-apocalyptic wasteland” we keep finding ourselves in.

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