Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Great Gatsby and the Pantheon

All who have suffered through my Greek Art and Archaeology lectures long enough to arrive at the Archaic period know that I have a fondness for F. Scott Fitzgerald. I often recite one of the opening lines of Tender is the Night as a crutch to convey a cultural sense of the Greek Kouros, "[m]ost of us have a favourite, a heroic period, in our lives;" I employ art to explain art. 

So you can imagine that I'm pleased to see The Great Gatsby (Der Grosse Gatsby?) back in the theatre this summer. I have yet to see it, so I will spare the movie review. Beyond being pleased to see Fitzgerald -- and the Jazz Age along with him -- returning to contemporary culture, I was happy to see a broad commercial film push something of greater substance than robots that change into cars. 

Cinema, in lockstep with a good portion of contemporary culture, is cynical about our desired level of intellectual fitness. Robots that fight monsters, various flavours of the apocalypse, superheroes from other planets, superheroes that fight robots, robotized heroes that fight other robotized villains, Nitrous Oxide burning race cars, and other escapist fantasy dominate the summer movie schedule. I'll admit that the sheer spectacle of these movies is occasionally welcome, along with the popcorn and soda they are served up with; but just like the actual junk food, the mental junk food shouldn't be a central component of our diet.

(I'll spare you my condescending movie recommendations; I will not tell you that your time is better spent seeing Upstream Color, Like Someone in Love, or Beyond the Hills, because no one likes that kind of discussion. I will not even consider recommending a re-read of Fitzgerald before seeing the film.)

Instead the film got me thinking about audiences and engagement. Fast and Furious prevents us from using most of our brains -- if we did, the movie would crash just like the cars in it. Iron Man, Superman, The Avengers, and others takes us for a ride mostly as a passive passenger, and while they do dip into myth, archetypes, and lots of Joseph Campbell territory, we are wowed by spectacle more than anything else. That is, our attempt to intellectualize them will eventually lead us to a cul-de-sac named "Entertainment". On the other hand, a film such as Upstream Color pays off very little for those who don't want to do the intellectual wrestling to come to terms with it (the Sampler was Circe, right?). 

I pondered this question while walking through Rome early one morning and found a solution our problematic cultural diet. The Pantheon. One can (and thousands of visitors do) marvel at it because it is famous, because it is old, or simply because it is big. It leaves an impression. You don't need a Classics B.A. to appreciate it as a monument, and the thousands that pass by every day undoubtedly find new reasons to admire and engage with the building. It makes us feel small and temporary compared to its eternality; it makes us appreciate the best of human achievement, especially considering its age; it takes us out of the everyday and forces us to engage with masterpieces of human expression. It exemplifies humankind making its boldest statements. 

But if you do have a degree in Classics, the building never stops giving. Its significance is also indicated by the double pediment emulating the roofline of the Propylaia on the Athenian Acropolis, the octostyle porch not dissimilar from the Parthenon, and the spherical interior recalling earlier domes, both concrete and corbeled. It is subtly imbued with meaning through its metrology that links the building to the Imperial fora and the earlier building whose pedimental inscription it borrows: M AGRIPPA LF COS TERTIUM FECIT. Or perhaps the resonance is in the reception: here is the model for numerous villas of Palladio, of the Library of the University of Virgina and countless other civic and public buildings in North America. A little bit of the Pantheon's DNA can be found in the hulking concrete designs (and Brutalist designs) of the twentieth century: Frank Lloyd Wright's Googenheim in Manhattan, or Oscar Niemeyer's national congress building in Brasilia, or even McMaster's own Health Sciences Building.

Whatever your level of engagement, investigations of the Classical World will fulfill your query and push you forward just enough to inspire you to know a little more. This is one of the beauties of studying Classics: it will give as much as you take, and provide something of value at every step along the way.