Purposeful Imperfections

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Category: Readings

The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West by Patricia Nelson Limerick

The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West by Patricia Nelson Limerick (cover art)

To my mind, The Legacy of Conquest is the single best volume on Western history, albeit I’m no historian but, rather, a mere kid from Colorado. It’s just such an engaging and succinct text, chock full of ideas that, at the time of writing in the 1980s, were groundbreaking and often controversial. A number of them still are, though, as proof of Patricia Nelson Limerick’s prowess and conviction, many have become far more commonplace in discussions of Western policy, history, and ways of life. For instance:

  1. Nature, far from being ours to control and profit from, has always proved a fickle partner. It’s one of the greatest barriers to sustaining life in the American West and has long left many of those seeking fortune there to feel somehow betrayed.
  2. The notion of property–especially land–was, and still is, one of the great conflicts between those living in the American West. Initially a mostly racially charged issue–the idea property to White settlers was wholly sacrosanct, whereas to the Native Americans it was, at least initially, fairly bewildering–property continues to be a source of class, race, corporate, and/or government-based conflict.
  3. Contrary to the still dominant view of the American West as a place for those seeking independence, the settling of the region was only possible through heavy government subsidies. The distribution of land, the control of Native Americans, and the railroads were all only possible thanks to substantial federal funding and support. We can now add many more items to this list, notably resource and public land management.
  4. Speaking of natural resources and public lands, in contrast to the prevalent ideas of the region’s bountiful and well-preserved landscapes, the West was founded on extractive industry: get in, get rich, get out. Touching on a couple of the earlier points: “The essential project of the American West was to exploit the available resources. Since nature would not provide it all, both speculation and the entrepreneurial uses of government were human devices to supplement nature’s offerings.” (p. 86)
  5. The belief that there was some kind of pastoral “golden age,” which the West still conjures, is, and always was, a myth. In fact, Western settlers often experienced the same feelings, because there “…is a pattern in Western civilization, long preceding Jefferson, to attribute ideal values to rural life that reality cannot match.” (p. 131) The same goes for natural disasters, times of resource scarcity, and other events that cause people to feel that life was simpler, easier, and better in the past. “The fur trappers coming into the Rockies in the mid-1830s could regret having missed the real boom times of decade before…” (p. 152) This nostalgia for the past is one of the longest-running misconceptions in the American West.

That’s a pretty impressive array of ideas, all of which bolster Limerick’s central thesis that, far from being a long lost, nostalgia-inducing era, the nineteenth-century West is, in many ways, very much alive in the present. Which is not to say that Limerick always gets it right, nor have many of her insights lead to tangible resolutions in the decades since The Legacy of Conquest was written. Sadly, as the West continues to grow, many of these issues continue to give rise to a strange mixture of denial and stubbornness which, in turn, often leads to more conflicts and more exploitative policies and ways of life.

Limerick, I suspect, would be the first to concede this. History, she tells us, is never resolved, nor should it be. It’s a dialog, one that circles back on itself in light of new discoveries and modes of thought, always being reworked and, ideally, calibrated with each new generation of historians, readers, lawmakers, and Westerners. And the work is never done.

“The clashes and conflicts of Western history will always leave the serious individual emotionally and intellectually unsettled. In the nineteenth-century West, speaking out for the human dignity of all parties to the conflicts took considerable nerve. It still does.” (p. 221)

 

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Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City by Anthony Flint

Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City by Anthony Flint (cover art)

Jane Jacobs’s four recommendations for successful neighborhoods (p. 124):

  1. Streets and districts should serve a variety of industries and purposes.
  2. Blocks should be short and feel comfortable to pedestrians.
  3. Buildings should vary in age, condition, and use (a.k.a. “mixed use”).
  4. Population must be dense.

In a place like Denver, Colorado–where I live, and which, at the moment, is growing by leaps and bounds, especially in the urban core–Jacobs’s recommendations are commonplace in discussions about what the city should look like, now and in the coming decades. But her ideas weren’t always a given, in fact they were initially viewed as crackpot, dangerous, and unfounded. Having a chance to glimpse of the origin of these ideas, and to examine their first major applications, is reason enough to pay Wrestling with Moses a visit.

Luckily, Anthony Flint’s text is also a lively biography of an astounding person: a woman without a college degree who, beginning in the 1950s, exposed political, financial, and intellectual fraud at the core of some incredibly powerful institutions and individuals. Most famously, Jane Jacobs defeated Robert Moses, New York City’s “master builder,” multiple times at a point in his career where he was more or less untouchable. It was a fight that was about as David versus Goliath as it gets.

But Jacobs’s legacy had a much larger impact than saving her community from the wrecking ball. In the process of battling Moses’s widespread brand of urban renewal, Jacobs pioneered public participation in urban planning, proved that ordinary citizens can successfully challenge authority, and exposed the democracy-undermining practice of funneling public money into private ventures. Echoes of her community activism would resonate broadly in the civil unrest of 60s.

However unwittingly, though, Jacobs’s approach did lend itself to gentrification–take look at Greenwich Village today–and Flint is careful not to gloss over this, and other, critiques. Likewise, he shows that, for all of Moses’s missteps and heavy handedness, he was very much a product of his era, and, even then, some of his projects have paid dividends (the creation of New York City’s extensive park system is one example). It’s this complexity that gives both Jacobs and Moses a well-roundedness and, in turn, renders their relationship–which provides the backbone of Wrestling with Moses–all the more intricate, substantive, and fascinating. So, while this is a biography about a humble visionary who took on a giant and won, it’s also a book about how we live now, and, with the majority of the world’s population now found in cities, how we will live.

 

Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit

Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit (cover art)

In Wanderlust, the medium is a crucial part the message, as the text–like a long walk–digresses and meanders, exposing us to a vast array of ideas, experiences, and terrain. This rambling style, while hypnotic, often pulls away from a cohesive thesis, though I think that’s part of the point. Solnit seems to reject much of the tidy, virtual, and prescriptive ways of living that arose concurrently with walking’s decline, aiming to, if not wholly reclaim, at least remind us of the joys and necessities of moving, living, and thinking at three miles per hour. Whether it’s a hike in the mountains, a stroll down the Vegas strip, or a political march, Wanderlust is a compelling reminder of the role waking has played in our development–biologically, personally, culturally, artistically, and politically. Walking has gotten us this far, and, while its roles have frequently changed over the last few hundred years, it has persisted, though, in recent decades, just barely. Solnit brings a much needed awareness to what we’ll lose if we cast it aside entirely.

A Book of Migrations: Some Passages in Ireland by Rebecca Solnit

A Book of Migrations: Some Passages in Ireland by Rebecca Solnit (cover art)

Drawing parallels between her actual homeland of California and ancestral homeland of Ireland, Rebecca Solnit pens a prismatic travel tale, a journey that’s as much inward as outward and as much about the act of travel as traveling in a specific locale. Book of Migrations is a kind of history book, too, one that muddies the usual takes on the past by mingling the personal and the marginalized with the ascendant and traditional.

Throughout, Solnit attempts to situate herself and those she encounters in the landscapes she walks across, but footholds quickly give way, leaving, at best, blurry insights. Yet, it’s this indeterminacy that makes Book of Migrations so meaningful, as it reminds us, crucially, of the mutability of identity, a starkly contrasting take to the far more traditional notions of character and culture as sedentary and fixed. It’s this fluidity that Solnit wants us to embrace as, like travel, its importance lies in the journey–with its motion, change, and newness–not the destination.

My Struggle: Book Four by Karl Ove Knausgaard

My Struggle: Book Four by Karl Ove Knuasgaard (cover art)

Book Four of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle is situated amid that violent uplift from childhood to adulthood, when the world simultaneously expands and contracts. It’s a vertiginous time, when feelings of possibility and responsibility, invincibility and vulnerability play musical chairs in our psyche. Those places and moments from childhood–so enormous, profound, and permanent in our memory–often turn out to be small and imperfect when reencountered. This destabilization, while liberating, is also uprooting, and Karl Ove’s saga, this round, is one of wild experimenting, stumbling, and, as the subtitle suggests, dancing in the dark. It’s a period of contextualization, in which he tries desperately–via booze, via writing, via sex–to locate himself, and, throughout, he seems to be asking: how much of what I was will I still be?

Rising from the Plains by John McPhee

Rising from the Plains by John McPhee (cover art)

A wonderful geology primer, equal parts lyrical and erudite, what sets Rising from the Plains apart from other narrative science writing is the way in which it situates and negotiates people amid vast, ancient landforms. At the core is a character study of David Love: decorated geologist, native son of Wyoming, and a composite of wiseness, living history, and closeness with the land. Love is our very capable ambassador to the terrain in question, where the Rocky Mountains rise up from the high plains.

Having spent a half century surveying the land, Love bemoans our inability to fully appreciate it. Our behaviors–our insistent exploits–prove this time and again. In response, Love maps once unknown terrains, not for conquest, but in the name of understanding and awareness. Stubborn and principled, he devotes his life to the preservation of his homeland, readily owning up, however, to privileging industry over preservation early in his career. Perhaps most crucially, Love understands that things are rarely as cut and dry as they seem–be it an outcropping of rock or industrial development. People need to make a living, Love concedes, and the land can certainly provide.

But can we learn to utilize the bounties of our environment without destroying it? Are we willing to look beyond ourselves–remembering that, geologically, we’ve not yet lasted a blink-of-an-eye–in order to persist more sustainably? It’s this message of seeking a balance, of taking the very long view and gaining a more holistic perspective, that keeps Rising from the Plains as fresh and necessary as when it first appeared thirty years ago.

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (cover art)

A lyrical fever dream that’s labyrinthine in subject and form, Under the Volcano is a book about trying to escape–one’s self, one’s weaknesses, one’s failures, one’s environment. It’s an experience that’s at once colorful and dreary, vast and oppressive, hopeful and hopeless, though ultimately a journey redolent of doom, a portent which grows at a dizzying rate with each passing chapter. It’s an obscured book, enveloped, as the title suggests, by massive shadows–a darkness that the central character, Geoffrey Firmin, wishes desperately to emerge from.

But Under the Volcano is not merely a document of Geoffrey Firmin’s demise. Sure, that’s the “plot,” but, true to his modernist roots, Lowry cobbles together a manic collage composed of shifting narratives, varied languages, ornate symbols, memories, inner conflicts, global collisions, a love quadrangle, and events of sudden violence, all of which are situated amid the wreckage of the Mexican Revolution and imminent war in Europe. It’s these types of tensions that permeate the experiences of Geoffrey, his half-brother Hugh, and his estranged wife Yvonne, as each struggles with what should be done, what can be done–with their lives, with their relationships with one another, and with these larger, looming conflicts that are consuming the world. Taken together, this vibrant tapestry of a text is a powerful consideration of one’s place and role amid life’s perennial chaos.

A Visual Inventory by John Pawson

A Visual Inventory by John Pawson (cover art)

If nothing else, an active photographic pursuit (in taking as well as viewing pictures) reminds us of the importance of looking. It’s an exercise that trains the eye and mind to steal quick moments of intrigue from our everyday environment. Simply (and somewhat platitudinously) put, it makes us aware of the potential beauty in every situation.

John Pawson’s A Visual Inventory is a kind of treatise on the powerful effect of purposeful seeing. Culled from a lifetime of photographic documentation, Pawson’s work is a testament to the visual interest inherent in unlikely places. His photographs rarely present a traditional subject or narrative, but, rather, what catches his eye are subtle lines, shapes, and forms–the geometry of environments. This phenomenon can be found everywhere, and it’s stunning to behold, especially when we realize that it’s as often the result of accident as intention. Incidental beauty–these subtle but pervasive designs–are what Pawson is keen to share with us.

Formally, A Visual Inventory is made up of pairs photos with some kind of shared theme. At times the pairings can rely a bit too heavily on obvious compositional parities, but, as a whole, the doubling and comparing of often disparate subjects is a powerful reminder of the visual world’s underlying structures. This is not to say that, when you get right down to it, everything is the same–far from it. It’s that there’s something powerful in being able to glean a consonant geometry that’s present everywhere we look. If, of course, we bother to do so.

Modern Man: The Life of Le Corbusier, Architect of Tomorrow by Anthony Flint

Modern Man by Anthony Flint (cover art)

The name, Le Corbusier, rang a bell. I knew he was a twentieth-century architect. French, probably (Swiss, actually). Big concrete buildings came to mind. But that’s about all I knew off the top of my head. I had no idea that he was responsible for modular architecture, or that he was among the first to try to address overpopulation through dense urban planning. And I was certainly unaware that Le Corbusier was tackling all of this as early as the 1920s. Thus, Anthony Flint’s biography, Modern Man, is a worthy venture, shedding light on this thinker and provocateur who, outside of architecture and design circles, has undeservedly fallen out of recognition.

Of course, as with most visionaries, Le Corbusier had his share of missteps, often due to a megalomania and opportunism that wouldn’t keep him from working with anyone when it suited him, even the Nazi-connected Vichy Regime in WWII France. And, while he basically gave us IKEA and some initial ideas and blueprints to build smarter, he also championed the type of urban design that gave us crime-ridden housing projects and car-centric sprawl in America. He’s definitely a polarizing figure, but Flint reminds us not to throw the baby “out with the modernist bathwater.” (p. 213) Or, more poignantly:

“For the twenty-first-century, however, among the greatest lessons to be learned from Le Corbusier are his design innovations in housing, and his recognition of the grand scale necessary to accommodate millions of people moving into cities each year. The reasons those contributions are important is because the urban century has arrived, in dramatic fashion.” (p. 213)

Flint’s writing is clear and engaging, making for a fairly quick read. He structures each chapter around a major project of Le Corbusier’s, so those looking for a strictly chronological biography may grow a bit frustrated, as the narrative does bounce around quite a bit (an aspect I mostly found intriguing, though, at the start of a few chapters, I did find myself a bit confused as to which decade we had landed in). Regardless, those interested in architecture, built environments, urban planning, or even just design, will be hard pressed not to gain some insight from this text.

My Struggle: Book Three by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Midway through Boyhood–book three of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle–a young Karl Ove earns himself a dose of comeuppance after emphatically pointing out that a classmate cannot read. “But it’s true,” he retorts, not understanding why voicing something that everyone is already aware of could be the source of conflict. In the end, it’s Karl Ove who’s in tears, trying to understand why it is that some truths are stones better left unturned. This episode is an interesting choice for inclusion on the part of Knausgaard because, in many ways, it seems that he never learned his lesson (or, perhaps, he has simply chosen to disregard adhering to this particular nicety). After all, 1000+ pages into this epic, it’s quite clear that a key method is to attempt to write about everything, including the messes and traumas that we’ve been told should stay packed away in the closet.

I’m now at the midpoint of the six-part series, and I still find it hard to articulate why I find Knausgaard’s work so riveting. And I’m not the only one. With each appearance of a new installment in english, another bevy of critics scramble to spell out exactly why these are “good” books (or, at least, why we keep reading them so intently). But I’m starting to think that the passage above may hold some semblance of an answer. With snark and sarcasm at the core of so much of contemporary discourse, operating in the realms of unbridled expression–be it in the form of passion or honesty or hatred–without at least an equal dose of qualification and skepticism is risking being labeled an unmannered rube. In this regard, Knausgaard is quite the outlier. He doesn’t avoid cliche, he doesn’t veil his opinions (however uncouth), he doesn’t let doubt cripple his motivation, and he (seemingly) doesn’t edit, but, instead, unapologetically gushes out these big, sloppy books. Such an effort is a breath of fresh air, frankly, if for no other reason that it provides a striking alternative to our current social dialogue.

Of course, whether it’s “great” writing or not is another topic (one that I see being debated ad nauseum–“He’s Proust for Gen-X!”). I’ll leave that debate for others. Issues of craft aside, his approach is not without other consequences, too–as Knausgaard has admitted, “I feel guilt for almost everything around this book…I was saying, ‘My book is more important than your life.’” This is very valid concern and one with complex ramifications, as it’s not exclusively his life that’s being shared with the world. I’m not exactly sure where I fall on this issue, but I do think that there is something deeply moving and human in such a bold approach, and, thus, I ultimately applaud Knausgaard for his willingness to take such a risk.