Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Cities Part 4: Caravaggio, Mosasaurs and America’s Hub – Kansas City

My work took me to Kansas City for a couple days last week, and, as is my custom, I have some thoughts about it.[1] Now I can’t say I had high expectations for Kansas City, but I was excited to test my working hypothesis that most places are repositories of wonder and unique flourishes of humanness if you look hard enough. The data confirmed my hypothesis.

The morning before I got to KC, they got 8” of snow. When I arrived it was bright and sunny, but everyone was in winter storm mode, trying to dig out from under the snow. Now the temperature was my first surprise.[2] I have never been to the plains states[3] in the winter, and assumed that they would be warmish, given their smouldering hot summers. I was wrong. It never got above 20 degrees F while I was there.

KC is a river town.[4] The first hint you get of this connection between the population center and the Mississippi’s major Tributary was in the rental car terminal. Like terminal B in the Sacramento[5] Airport, the floor was decorated with an unmistakable riffle-pool design of a great anastamosing channel.

Driving into KC from the airport is impressive. At one point you drive through a stretch with the City in front of you, the great river on your right and a massive train yard on your left, and you realize that this is a city that is on the way to places...the hub of our economic wheel.

Downtown KC is surprisingly fun. There are about 8 blocks of restraints and clubs called the ‘lights district’ and includes some pretty eccentric buildings:

But the second night, I made my way down to ‘the Plaza,’ about 3 miles south of downtown. On the way, I stopped by the Art Museum, which was free and still open. The art museum was situated in Sculpture Park…which is as fun and idiosyncratic as it sounds:

The Art museum was very good…but really the whole experience was dwarfed by a single piece. I walked into the Baroque room, full as usual with a vast array of paintings ‘inspired by Caravaggio.’ Now I have to say, most of the Baroque reminds me of the second and third Matrix movies. Stylisticly similar to the inspired geneius of the original, but actually a pale shadow of its brilliance. But then, a painting on one wall caught my eye. It was undoubtedly the greatest piece in the room and probably in the museum. “It couldn’t be.” I thought…not in Kansas City. But it was. There in the most rectangular of the rectangle states, equidistant from our country’s self proclaimed cultural centers, was just the second original Caravaggio I had ever seen in person:

If you haven’t picked it up, Caravaggio is my favorite artist. In some ways he tries to do with his art precisely what I strive to do with my preaching…place familiar Biblical subjects in their stark, realistic settings, to breath new and accessible life into the horror and grace of it all. I don’t really have any idea what I am doing at art museums. I generally use them to illustrate my timeline of the fits and starts of western Philosophy. But with The Baptist, I tried to just experience it…to let my eyes follow the brush strokes…to notice the detail and take in the whole. I don’t know why I was so shocked to find this painting in this place, but the whole thing struck me as delightfully incongruous. Normally if a painting is the highlight of a visit to a new city, it does not speak well of the city. In this case, it was because of the city. Of course Caravaggio, the master of capturing narrative tension between grace and grit in a single image…the great virtuoso of contrast…would not be best experienced in Paris or London. John the Baptist BELONGS in Kansas City in melancholy contemplation of the hardships and anonymity of the wilderness.[6]

I was told that the Plaza was the place to be in the summer, but it would probably be dead in the snow and cold. It wasn’t. It was fun. The region is built around several old, opulent hotels that tower over a scenic stretch of the Kansas River (a tributary of the Missouri).

The Plaza continued the theme of the incongruous. The architecture of these 8-10 blocks was unified but totally unique:

Yet, these distinctive buildings mostly housed chain stores and restraints. It was an neighborhood that was as personalized as any I had visited in its built environment and yet totally indistinct in its goods and services. Fortunately, I went armed with a restraint recommendation. I only knew two things I wanted to do on this trip before I touched down…and one of them was Barbecue. Now, I have always been a little self conscious about the propensity for cities to highlight their food. I mean, New Orleans is one thing, we all know they’ve got other stuff going on. But a place like Buffalo, for example, it seems like being that proud of food and football is an implicit capitulation to just not being that interesting. I mean, could the BBQ in Kansas City really be that good or is it like the kid in school that was mediocre at poetry but wasn’t good at anything else so he got tabbed ‘the poetry guy.’ Um…the former. I went to Jacks Stacks and got the special and took all the waitress’ recommendations.[7] It was qualitatively better than any barbecue experience I have ever had.

Finally, I was scheduled to go home on Saturday, but Amada agreed to allow me to push my flight back in order to do the other thing I have always wanted to do “in” Kansas City. First some context…In the late cretaceous[8] North America was split in two by a great, shallow sea. Essentially, Kansas, was equivalent to today’s Caribbean except it was overrun by some of the most remarkable Charismatic Paleo-Aquatic-Megafauna that have ever existed. The late Cretaceous Midwest sea[9] teeming with creatures so strange and startling that you’d be sure that they were the careless products of the imagination of a bad-made-for-cable horror movie author, pushing a deadline with ample weed…if the fossils were not captured in a thin chalk bed in West Kansas.

I have wanted to visit the University of Kansas Natural history museum since I read a really interesting book on the Cretaceous seas of North America many years ago when I was contemplating a career change (to paleontology). So Saturday morning I got up and made the one hour drive to Lawrence.

Now, I collect Natural History Museums…so I am hard to impress. In general, because I have been to way more of these than a normal human should, I generally prefer if they specialize in whatever is locally interesting.[10] So, in my opinion, the Kansas museum would be most successful if it had three floors of Mosesaurs and Xiphactinus. But Kansas 6 year olds need to see a Triceratops too. So they only had a few specimens from the Late Cretaceous…but they were worth it.

My favorite was the shark. It looks like the shark’s head is in the middle…but it had just had a bad ass Xiphactinus (see above) in its belly.

Once again, a dull sounding city teemed with the wonder of locatedness and particularity. For all our legitimate concerns about the Walmartification of America, there is something about human community that seems to always manifest a unique signature of its relationship with place. And that is why when I was asked to go to Kansas City, I was genuinely excited…and it didn’t disappoint.

[1] I realize that in the Vegas post I said that New Orleans was coming next. Here’s the problem. I forgot my camera in New Orleans and had to buy one of those disposable cameras with old fashioned film…and I can’t find anywhere to get it developed.
[2] Actually, my first surprise was that most of Kansas City is actually in Missouri.
[3] I refuse to call Kansas/Nebraska/Omaha the Midwest. I arbitrarily reserve that term for MI/OH/WI/MN et al.
[4] It is not an accident that I disproportionately visit river towns…I do study rivers.
[5] Another river town.
[6] Apparently, one of his other Johnny B paintings is in Toledo…which works in precisely the same way.
[7] This is my new trick for trying food in a new place. As much as possible, let locals or watistaff order for you.
[8] Come on, when I offer context, I don’t mess around.
[9] Incidentally, Jungle The Midwest Sea is a very good album by flatfoot 56, but every time I hear it I think of the late Cretaceous…surely there is not a better unintentional description of a paleo-era.
[10] Cleveland is the best example of this. Most of my understanding of late Devonian fish and amphibians comes from their display of Ohio-centric fossils.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Pascal Surplus

I am giving a talk (MP3) on Pascal Tuesday. I didn’t have room for a third of the Pensees quotes I like, so I am posting the rest of them here.

“We never keep to the present. We recall the past; we anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us…Let each of us examine his thoughts; he will find them wholly concerned with the past or the future…Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning to be happy it is inevitable that we should never be so.”

“The power of kings if founded on the reason and folly of the people, but especially their folly. The greatest and most important thing in the world is founded on weakness. This is a remarkably sure foundation, for nothing is surer than that people will be weak. Anything founded on sound reason is very ill-founded, like respect for reason.”

“Put the world’s greatest philosopher on a plank that is wider than need be: if there is a precipice below, although his reason may convince him that he is safe, his imagination will prevail.”

“Justice and truths are two points so fine that our instruments are too blunt to touch them exactly.”

“Man is nothing but a subject full of natural error that cannot be eradicated except through grace. Nothing shows him the truth, everything deceives him. The two principals of truth, reason and senses, are not only both genuine, but are engaged in mutual deception. The senses deceive reason through false appearances, and, just as they trick the soul, they are tricked by it in their passions, which produce false impressions. The both compete in lies and deception.”

“If our condition were truly happy we should not need to divert ourselves from thinking about it.”

“How tiresome it is to give up pursuits to which we have become attached. A man enjoying a happy home-life has only to see a woman who attracts him, or spend five or six pleasant days gambling, and he will be very sorry to go back to what he was doing before. It happens every day.”

“…as men could not make might obey right, they have made right obey might. As they could not fortify justice they have justified force…”

“It is just as pointless and absurd for reason to demand proof of first principles from the heart before agreeing to accept them as it would be absurd for the heart to demand an intuition of all the propositions demonstrated by reason before agreeing to accept them.”

“Man’s greatness comes from knowing he is wretched…”

“If he exalts himself, I humble him.
If he humbles himself, I exalt him.
And I go on contradicting him
Until he understands
That he is a monster that passes all understanding.”

“This means open war between men, in which everyone is obliged to take sides, either with the dogmatist or with the skeptics, because anyone who imagines he can stay neutral is a skeptic par excellence. This neutrality is the essence of their clique…They are not even for themselves; they are neutral, indifferent suspending judgment on everything, including themselves.”

“Let us concede to the skeptics what they have so often proclaimed, that truth lies beyond our scope and is an unattainable quarry, that it is no earthly denizen, bt at home in heaven, lying in the lap of God, to be known only in so far as it pleases him to reveal it. Let us learn our true nature from the uncreated and incarnate truth.”

“Know then, proud man, what a paradox you are to yourself. Be humble, impotent reason! Be silent, feeble nature! Learn that man infinitely transcends man, hear from your master your true condition, which is unknown to you. Listen to God…man infinitely transcends man, and without the aid of faith he would remain inconceivable to himself…Consequently, it is not through the proud activity of our reason but through its simple submission that we can really know ourselves. ”

“Diversion: Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things…That is why men are so fond of hustle and bustle; that is why prison is such a fearful punishment…”

“All our life passes in this way: we seek rest by struggling against certain obstacles, and once they are overcome, rest proves intolerable because of the boredom it produces. We must get away from it and crave excitement.”

“…none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words, God himself.”

“When everyone is moving towards depravity, no one seems to be moving.”
“Reason never wholly overcomes imagination, though the contrary is quite common…Imagination cannot make fools wise, but it can make them happy…Imagination exaggerates small objects with fanatical exaggeration until they fill our souls.”

“Our imagination…will grow weary of conciving things before nature grows weary of producing them.”

“I believe with (our) curiosity changed into wonder (we) will be more disposed to contemplate them in silence than to investigate them with presumption.”

“Do the philosophers, who offer us nothing else for our good but the good that is within us? Have they found the cure for our ills?”

“There is enough light for those who desire only to see, and enough darkness for those of a contrary disposition.”

“We run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us (from) seeing it.”

“Jesus came to blind those who have clear sight and to give sight to the blind; to heal the sick and let the healthy die; to call sinners to repentance and justify them, and to leave the righteous to their sins; to fill the hungry with good things and sedn the rich away empty.”

“True conversion consists in self-annihilation before the universal being whom we have so often vexed and who is perfectly entitled to destroy us at any moment.”

“Total Submission to Jesus Christ...Eternal bliss, in exchange for a day of hard training in this world. May I never forget your words.”