In my travels I often find myself having the following conversation:
NEW ACQUAINTANCE: So, where do you live?
N. A.: (Pause) What brought you to Dallas?
And then I must either make a quip (“Just lucky, I guess”) to get me out of the responsibility of a sensible answer, or launch into a pretty comprehensive reframing of the whole issue of where one lives.
The subtext of my interlocutor’s question is quite complicated. In one sense, it is rather flattering, from the New Acquaintance’s point of view: “I’d have thought you could have had your choice of where you wanted to live”–but it also has a tinge of “Not quite successful enough to live in New York/San Francisco/London/Santa Fe/Seattle, huh?”–or even “Boy, you must have really blotted your copybook to be stuck in Dallas–what did you do?”
Saddest of all is when the question comes, not from a Parisian or New Yorker or Londoner, but from a Dallasite, in which case there’s a further subtext: “So, us failures have got to stick together.” True, it is only a certain class of alienated Dallasites that will ask the question in that way. There are far more fiercely loyal partisans of the Big D, among whom, in a way, I count myself. But this essay is not going to be the standard praise of such things as the superb acoustics of the Myerson Auditorium, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Theater Center, the fine Dallas Museum of Art, the excellent and reasonably priced restaurants, the historic districts, the glorious spring and fall, the dazzling postmodern glass architecture of Fountains Plaza and the downtown in general.
Nor will it even be directly about the vibrant dynamism of Dallas’s economy, the practically zero rate of unemployment, the powerhouse new technology of the North Dallas Telecom Corridor, the world-class shopping, the fact that Dallas’s average disposable income is the highest in the nation, the city’s role as the unsung capital of NAFTA. Nor, again, the world preeminence of DFW airport, the eight major universities within Dallas’s orbit, the cowtown charm and cultural brilliance of its neighbor, Fort Worth, the Nobel Prizewinning faculty of the Southwest Health Science Center, the mushrooming population, the cultural energy of its many large (and for the most part relatively amicable) ethnic minorities.
Quite a few cities (Atlanta, Miami, Denver, Seattle) can make similar Chamber of Commerce or Tourist Board boasts. And indeed the established giants–New York, Chicago, Los Angeles–are beginning to see their lunches being eaten by the new-tech upstarts. They are rightly threatened by the wave of major corporate relocations to the sunbelt and the former Empty Quarter.
But this would only be an argument for Dallas as a place to work, not a place to live. After all, Dallas has no mountains, no ocean, no forests, no river to speak of, very little history (and some of it gruesome), almost no literary publishing industry, and a climate that tops 100 degrees for several weeks during the summer; and it is at least a day’s car journey to anyplace that would count as a major tourist attraction. Everything that would make Dallas a good place to live has had to be imported and paid for, or invented in situ. And this, in fact, is the beginning of an answer to my solicitous New Acquaintance.
For to our doleful little list of things Dallas doesn’t have, one can add a number of moral evils that are strangely lacking or scarce in my city. Dallas has very little of the corrosive envy that poisons the air of New York (I except a few academics who are trying to escape to a more pessimist environment). If you live in New York and do not leave it, you can have no idea of the amazing liberation and lightness of being you feel when you get out of its culture of envy, that dark miasma of resentment that creeps across the upper East and West Sides and the Village on an autumn day. Dallas is also remarkably free of the snobbery that paralyses Boston, and the class hatreds of London. It lacks the totalitarian liberal guilt of politically-correct Berkeley, Ann Arbor, New Haven, Madison-Wisconsin, and Hollywood, and the kneejerk partisan paranoia of Washington, D.C.. Above all, Dallas possesses none of the subtle and pervasive sense of cultural despair that one finds in almost every Northern and Eastern city (a Texan often feels in New York as if he were made of a denser reality than the waterish stuff around him, as if he could put his hand, like Superman, through the walls)–a feeling of despair one even encounters, in a different form, in the far West. That sense of cultural despair I have privately christened the “Casablanca syndrome”–everything has been going to the dogs since Bogey said goodbye to Ingrid by the airplane, and real civilization won’t return until we get back Paris, Gauloises, Marxist political integrity, trenchcoats, abstract art, proper coffee, classy novelistic adultery in the afternoon, Jazz, Hemingway, and protest poetry.
Underneath this attitude is a deep hatred of business and technology, a convulsive rejection of the future, and a perpetual adolescent desire to escape responsibility. Though Dallas does have its own small share of this, for the most part Dallas is a city of hope–or as David Byrne of the Talking Heads put it in True Stories, his remarkable movie about Dallas, Dallas is the city of dreams. People are inventing and living their own Casablanca here, and don’t need to resurrect the old one.
Dallas deeply irks those observers of it that cannot shake off their distaste for capitalist America as it flourishes here. They seize on what they can–the alleged suicidal alienation of suburban Dallas life, for instance–and have made Plano, a northern suburb of the city, almost a watchword for anomie and cultural vacuum. But such people are generally academics or journalists, whose own culture often cuts them off from the six great sources of human community in the suburbs–family, religion, sport, school, charitable activities, and local popular discussion groups such as historical and philosophical societies, garden clubs and the like, which they tend to consider beneath their attention. I myself discovered Little League, which combines family with sport, through being dragged into that community by my son. Baptist and Catholic churches are vast hives of social and charitable activity, as are the elaborate paraphernalia of Texas’ major religion, football, with its bands, cheerleader fund drives, local rivalries, and so on. Weddings, funerals, and christenings, often avoided by liberal intellectuals, are deep sources of community.
But these communities are not physically localized. Traditional city planners, who love the old idea of the neighborhood, cannot get their heads around the strange geographical superimposition of virtual neighborhoods that operates here–neighborhoods about 400 square miles in extent, connected closely by car, cellphone, email and local TV, radio, and the press, and densely overlapping like a palimpsest. My neighborhoods include several local intellectual and literary salons, my karate group, the Dallas Institute, the theater world, my wife’s musical, culinary, and linguistic connections, my church, the Jung Society, and sundry artistic and architectural communities. Strangers cannot see these communities going on in the street, and thus there is a huge discrepancy between the views taken of Dallas as a place to live by dwellers here and by outside critics of it
Why this should be so is connected to the more general issue that we began with, which is why one lives anywhere. And we cannot answer this question until we have at least encountered a more fundamental issue still, which is: what makes us happy?
What makes us happy and what we believe makes us happy are two different things. There are things we have, even things a place gives us, that make up the meaningful substance of our lives, and that silently and invisibly make us happy. Silently and invisibly, because for the most part we take them for granted, transferring their felt benefit to the second category, what we believe makes us happy. Human as we are, unless we are very wise indeed, the things we believe make us happy are the things we want but do not have, the things that we want because other people seem to want them in order to be happy, the things already in the possession of other people who want to persuade us to believe that those things make them happy (so that they in turn can believe that they are indeed happy).
In this second category, of what we believe will make us happy, Dallas is at a distinct disadvantage. People do not gleefully send postcards of Dallas to their friends while visiting here. Real estate is cheap here partly because it is difficult to advertize. There is indeed plenty of money in Dallas, which many people desire, but in second-category terms that money would be a persuasion to buy a ticket to someplace else and consume the things available there that we believe will make us happy. (I do not except myself from this shared illusion: one of the things I like about Dallas is that it is only about one and a half hours by plane away from the Yucatan Caribbean and its Mayan ruins, which I adore.) But careful thought can dispel the fantasy for a few minutes of clarity.
For Dallas is full of the things that really can make one happy. The problem in describing them is that by their very nature they are private things, personal to each individual’s own way of being happy–which can indeed be enabled and deepened by a place, but cannot be so easily turned into an exchangeable commodity. Not that I am decrying exchangeable commodities–it would be very unDallas to do so. The general condition of exchange, of free communication in the media of goods, money, services, ideas, desires, ideals is one of the elements of Dallas that enable true happiness. But Dallas lacks the tangible assets–a seafront, a benign climate, a magnificent historical ruin–that other cities have available to turn into an impersonal desire machine.
So to give this point some form–after all, writing for publication must turn the intangible flow of experience into concrete particulars, which run the risk of becoming commodities because they have been published–I must recount some of my own sources of real happiness in Dallas.
For me, Dallas is a city of great conversations. Perhaps because people can really do effective work here–poor Dallas does indeed need a lot of work–my partners in conversation are effective people, people who have made and are making a difference to this city. They are thus not threatened by the possibility that they have not justified their existence, and are more likely to to welcome a new idea for its usefulness than put up defenses against it as a threat to their prized sinecures. There are no prized sinecures here, because most people outside Dallas believe they’d be happier elsewhere than Dallas, an opinion that drives down the public value of a position in this city. But the advantage is that people here can’t afford, and don’t need, diehard intellectual positions. They have little investment in politically correct ideas of morality or postmodern theories of art or command economics, because their positions don’t stand or fall by their ideological respectability or the art market or the local academic consensus or the continuous refilling of the public trough. There is a notable absence of conventional thinking. As a result, the conversations here are marvellous.
I can remember a delicious night talk around a granite boulder in the garden of a friend, a boulder which had been ingeniously drilled so as to emit a beautiful fountain of burning natural gas. The talk was about poetry and the cosmological history of the universe. And then there was the the Zoroastrian New Year celebration in the house of a Persian friend (people who call themeslves Persians rather than Iranians tend to cock a snook at the mullahs, hanker after the Shah, and love the poetry of Hafez). And the dinners at the Montaigne club, whose patron is a charismatic, rakish society gambler and devotee of Michel de Montaigne named James Leake. And then too there are the cranky, logical, and endlessly interesting arguments at the Dallas Philosophical Society, which meets, true to its egalitarian principles, in a reserved area of Luby’s Restaurant and eats rubber chicken and gravy while it debates the possibility of artificial intelligence emerging in the massive parallelism of the Internet. By contrast there was the rather wild high-society dinner to raise money for the preservation of Charleston, the English home of the Bloomsbury Group, at which oilmen were auctioned off by the wives of bankers to be the love-slaves of the wives of computer moguls–the Dallas aristocracy at its best, “cutting up” somewhat–the ladies svelte and blonde, dressed with remarkable elegance in Dallas Red, with Big Hair and Big Teeth and Big Décolletage, the gentlemen squat and uncomfortable in their suits, with loosened ties and Texas idioms.
I could not leave out my brain-gasping participation in the ongoing dialogue on relativistic cosmological topology with the brilliant math-physics group at the University of Texas at Dallas. Nor the St. Valentine’s dinner at the house of the President of Texaco, at which poets moved from table to flower-heaped table reading love poetry from Sappho, Shakespeare, and Keats. Nor the conversation at the house of Michael Osbaldeston when he unveiled his colossal statue of a titaness. Nor the continuing brilliance of my friend and colleague Alex Argyros, on time and evolution and the paradoxes of poststructuralist theory, nor the bibulous evenings with the performance art genius Fred Curchack, the musical maestro Robert Rodriguez, and the fine short-story writer Robert Nelsen, nor Martha Heimberg’s memorable literary soirees, her own unforgettable Texas version of the Paris salon. Nor my fourteen-year series of lunches with the author and neurologist Pat Howell, and our ongoing attempt to understand the nature of the soul. Indeed, the soul is the topic of many of Dallas’ conversations, even one-sided ones like Monsignor Don Fischer’s deeply transformative radio homilies on the spiritual life.
Dallas has liveliest literary scene that I have found in any American city. In the last few years there has been an upsurge of local talent, especially in poetry, and a real growth in its audience. Readings at the various Barnes and Nobles, Borders and other bookstores are crowded; raucus mobs applaud Dallas’ prizewinning and frequently obscene Poetry Slam performances at Club Clearview, in Dallas’ Soho-style Deep Ellum district. Several literary societies, including the Writer’s Garret, the active Dallas PEN Club chapter, the Word, and WordSpace, as well as the Dallas Public Library, sponsor exciting and well-attended programs. Wordspace is presided over by the poet Robert Trammell, part ancient cowboy, part scholar-mystic, part city complainer, the poet laureate of Dallas. The excellent poetic underground theater group, which performs literally under the ground at the Undermain Theater, has sparked the literary energy by mounting the works of local poets and playwrights, as has the fine Kitchen Dog Theater. But the point I want to emphasize is the almost preternatural amity of the literary community. In poetry, for instance, differences that in other cities result in bitter and ancient feuds, internecine sabotage, a generally hostile atmosphere in literary gatherings, and a distinct alienation of the public–differences such as that between free verse and formal poets, hippies and academics, amateurs and professionals, slam poets and slim volume aesthetes, rich and poor writers, old and young ones, the published and the unpublished–these differences scarcely ruffle the general sense of warm appreciation for each other’s work. This may be partly the result of not having much of a literary publishing industry to quarrel over, but I think it has quite as much to do with the nature of Dallas’ soul.
Best of all, perhaps, have been the many years of work with Zsuzsanna Ozsváth, holocaust survivor, ex-concert pianist, and literary scholar, translating the incredibly rich heritage of Hungarian poetry. This work is like the most delightful form of play: if the angel of God were to show up during our translation sessions with an invitation to paradise, I think we would both, respectully, ask him to wait and come back in an hour or so when we would be finished. No snowcapped mountain or Norman cathedral or national capitol could have so fed my soul.
For if Dallas is the “city of” anything, it is, oddly enough, the city of soul. The “soul movement,” as it has been dubbed by the literary press, was created by a group of philosophical and psychological thinkers, including James Hillman, Thomas Moore, Robert Romanyshyn, Robert Sardello, Bernd Jager, Don and Louise Cowan, Gail Thomas and others, who met and evolved their key ideas in Dallas. So the city of J.R. and the Texas Book Depository–from which Kennedy was shot–is also the place from which came a new call to inwardness and spirituality, a new concern for the moral life.
The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture is an excellent example of the best of Dallas. It is an institution I have never found the like of anywhere else. It has had a hand in the imaginative plans for the next hundred years of city development and architecture, including new lakes, long winding greenbelts, fine boulevards and the ambitious Dallas Area Rapid Transit system. It created the “Teaching the Teachers” program, which gives fellowships to Dallas’ high school teachers so that they can take an intensive–and very enjoyable–course in the traditions of epic, tragedy and comedy during the summer, and thus renew their vocations (this program has now been extended to school principals); it sponsors an annual “What makes a city” conference and retreat; and it is one of the chief venues where the intellectual, artistic, and spiritual elites of the city can interact with the magnates of politics, money, and the legal system. Typically for Dallas, there is no stigma attached by the intellectuals to the magnates, nor do the magnates condescend to their poor-relation artistic or academic comrades. The Dallas Institute was the home and birthplace of the soul movement.
The Dallas soul is not just a matter of a certain capacity for change of heart, an ability to open oneself to the mysterious in the world. It also includes a deep intellectual adventurousness and preparedness for new ideas. Both are phenomena that come from freedom–political, economic, spiritual–a kind of prairie nakedness to the wind, an exposure to the brilliant sunlight of these latitudes. Dallas’ mixture of libertarian enterprise, conservative individual responsibility, and Texas frontier robustness leads to an atmosphere of positive toleration that keeps the heart open and the mind flowing. If those who live in other parts of the country sometimes wonder what it would be like to live in a generous conservative regime of intellectual freedom, Dallas is a good example. Perhaps that is why so many energetic, optimistic, and original people choose to come here.
Perhaps it is also why, strangely, one does not have to watch one’s mouth in this city. This is not to say that racist vileness or belittling misogyny is tolerated, any more than it is anywhere else that is civilized. Rather, the motivations for such decency are Texan courtesy, religious humility, and a sense that we are all on this sunbaked prairie together and had better respect each other’s work. Perhaps, less admirably, there is the caution of a gun-toting cultural tradition, in which politeness was, within living memory, a survival trait. Black cowboys and frontier wives were often as handy with a shooting iron as anyone else, and did not need to take nonsense from anybody. Dallas’ much hated and much loved black city commissioner, John Wiley Price, a notorious demagogue and leader of the radical wing of the black voting bloc, has–to his credit as far as I am concerned–been jailed for decking people he judged to be insulting him racially. I had an elderly graduate student, a genuine Texas lady, who when her husband of many years traded her in for a cute younger model, did not take it lying down either. She plugged the offending ex-spouse with her little Raven automatic before, tragically, turning the weapon on herself. Not that one condones such behavior, but it has a certain panache to it that is indicative of an older style of western liberty. The motivations of Dallas courtesy, significantly, are not those one sometimes finds further north and east: PC mind control, self-contempt, fashionable conformism, a sort of slimy timidity, and paranoia about the possible presence of informers. The key difference is that any opinion, if sincerely held and rationally defended–however bizarre and off the beaten track–is given a respectful hearing in Dallas.
Splendid as they are, the public achievements of Dallas–the art galleries with their refreshing unconcern for New York fashion, the Bach Society baroque concerts, the McKinney Avenue Contemporary Gallery–are not unmatched in other cities. Perhaps it is the private achievements, the string quartets in people’s homes, the amazing private collections of art, the intensity of intellectual and spiritual life when allowed to take its own way–Dallas’s cultural free enterprise–that makes the city so livable.
But these qualities, alas, are not such that one can easily pick them up in a visit, and they are not saleable. One just has to live here. As for making the place more livable, it is essentially a matter of our own imagination. Let me tell a parable about how one might improve our city.
The parable is about depth, about deepening. If you have lived in a European city–or even an eastern or midwestern U.S. city–you will remember the underground. Basements, subways, wine cellars, catacombs, cryptoporticos (those cool subterranean walkways the ancient Romans built so emperors could move about their palaces during the hot summer in air-conditioned comfort), the caverns where ancient sibyls spoke their prophecies–these deep places gave a resonance to the city, so that it rang when you stamped on it. Go to the American Academy in Rome and ask them to show you the aqueduct. In the basement corridor there is a manhole in the floor, with a lid it takes two people to lift. Beneath is a steel ladder leading down to a strange narrow gallery cut into the solid rock. Trajan built it to supply water to the huge thirst of Rome; its other end was up in the cool hills to the north. Egypt is riddled with a maze of tombs, so that mummy–embalmed flesh–and linen grave wrappings were commercial products for centuries, and brown paper is brown because it was first made from tomb linen. But one does not have to cross the ocean to find city deeps–Chicago has a whole underground infrastructure, and the bowels of New York rumble continually with trains, and its intersections steam with infernal vapors.
Dallas does not have much in the way of deep places. The city is not old enough, for a start. Troy had seven levels when the great archeologist Heinrich Schliemann dug it up, and the cities of ancient Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley had more. Mayan and Teotihuacano pyramids sometimes have upward of twelve layers of rebuilding. In Rome one has the sensation of peering into a dizzying well of historical periods–Latin, Etruscan, republican, imperial, medieval–and then in quick succession the early renaissance, high renaissance, mannerist, baroque, rococo, and the modern overlay.
Dallas is physically shallow by comparison. Most homes do not have a cellar, but are built on a concrete slab. Keeping wine at a constant temperature is a constant worry for Dallas oenophiles. Even the most enthusiastic of Dallasites can maybe distinguish a settler Dallas of the nineteenth century, an oil Dallas, and a postmodern Dallas, all packed into a history of about 150 years–a twentieth of Rome’s, a thirtieth of Jerusalem’s, a fortieth of Cairo’s.
This is no shame on Dallas. Some instinct is already driving us underground. Think how the Myerson is given depth and resonance by its lower level and the passageway to its underground parking lot–like a singer with a fine open larynx and nasal cavity, a clear air-passage from the cavern of the chest. Or consider Dallas’ most distinctive small theater, the Undermain. Or the warren of malls under downtown. Our place of Dionysian frenzy we call “Deep” Ellum.
We know that to become a city of complexity and soul we must go down. We have begun to take seriously the slaves’ graveyards, the silted bottom of White Rock Lake, the underground future of DART. We put some of Central Expressway below ground level. Gail Thomas, the former director of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, took the lead in establishing Pegasus Park, with its water spirals flowing from subterranean springs, as a sort of keel to balance the high topgallant of the red horse. Gradually we are arguing ourselves into some kind of Town Lake, whose drowned depths will give the liquid body needed to reflect the heights of the city. Such a lake might make us acknowledge the geographical and historical importance of Dallas’ southern half, its “lower” half. All over the city our electronic moles are burrowing through the ground laying hundreds of miles of fiber optic cable.
Of course “depth” in the physical sense is only a metaphor. But our architecture has a way of turning into our psychological space–recall how important in your childhood dreams were the attic and cellar of your first remembered home (if it had them). Whole societies map their spiritual lives onto the heights and depths of their buildings. A city whose summers are as hot as Dallas’s should respond viscerally to the way Islamic desert architecture, for instance, at once manages the heat and expresses its religious and cultural imagination. The muezzin tower of an Arab mansion acts not only as the platform of its daily prayers, but also as a chimney, drawing a sweet draft of air upward out of the house. That air, meanwhile, has been cooled by its passage through the deep cellars of the place, and then by the evaporative cooling of the courtyard fountains. The shrubs and flowering plants in the courtyard further moisten, cool, and scent the flowing air, and the arched loggias surrounding the garden chill it still more with their deep shade.
When Carl Hodges, the visionary Arizonan president of Planetary Design Corporation, was hired to develop a passive air conditioning system for the stark concrete downtown of Phoenix, he turned to his Arabian experience for ideas–and applied them to the American desert city. He built graceful draft towers throughout the city center, through which water was dripped to create a drop in temperature–and allowed the diesel-laden air of Phoenix’s bus stops to be drawn through loose earth flower beds, where it would be not only cooled but purified–and it turns out that flowers are fertilized by carbon combustion byproducts. Noonday temperatures were diminished, and the city took on a new depth, a new cultural flavor.
Imagine this. In the year 2003 DART engineers digging a tunnel for a new line come across strange regular structures of fitted stone and mud brick. Archeologists are called in to identify the buried remains. Two or three artifacts are brought to light, then shards of pottery and small ornaments of turquoise, copper, and gold. Poetry in some strange precolumbian dialect is found cut into tablets of stone. There is great excitement; the DART tunnel is diverted, and experts from SMTU, UTD, UD, UTA and other local universities are called in, together with art historians and curators from the DMA. They in turn invite specialist colleagues from other parts of the country, and a major dig is established.
The artifacts and architectural details appear to resemble the very early Toltec culture of Mexico; but there are major differences. The fragmentary ritual warclub and carnelian-encrusted dagger found in one burial site possess a vigorous style of their own. Excavations reveal a substantial city about the size of ancient Pompeii. Gradually a picture emerges of an early branch of precolumbian Toltecs, forced into exile in the north by a dynastic conflict–all recounted in the close-packed ideographs of the great stelae that once stood before the temple doors. Even the last days of the city (sacked, evidently, by some Havasupai war-party) can be made out: the princess Burning Moon entombed alive with her two noble maidservants as enemy warriors surged through the palace, the city in flames, the temple looted.
The effect on Dallas of the Xochitec culture–for so they named themselves– is electric. Suddenly the city has become a major tourist center. Academics, savants, artists and writers move into the less expensive neighborhoods of South Dallas; coffee-houses and galleries spring up; Xochitec artistic and architectural styles are imitated in public, domestic, and business buildings; women’s clothing fashions feature feather capes and headwear, copper, rose quartz, shell and agate accessories. A new literature begins to appear, and Dallas becomes the cultural center of the entire Southwest.
But after further investigation, discrepancies in the evidence begin to appear. The carbon dating gives inconsistent results. Certain materials used in Xochitec manufacture and construction appear to be anachronistic. Gradually the appalling possibility arises that this whole city may be an enormous, ingenious hoax.
At last the chief culprit steps forward, making banner headlines in the Dallas press and throughout the world. A software billionaire from the telecom corridor, he has put together a small consortium of equally wealthy Dallas eccentrics, including a real estate mogul and an old oilman with a fanatical devotion to his city. Tired of Dallas’ reputation as a shallow commercial city with no ocean, no mountains, and no history, they have hired a team of brilliant archeologists, artists, historians, writers, geologists, architects and forgers to enact the grand deception, sworn them to secrecy, and set to work.
The moment the hoax is revealed, chaos erupts. Artifacts from the site that had been valued at millions of dollars are suddenly worthless, and the holdings of museums all over the world plummet in value. A flurry of lawsuits erupts. Dallas appears to be a laughing-stock.
But oddly enough the flow of paying tourists does not diminish–indeed, the great dig is swamped by an even larger tide of visitors, intrigued even more by the grandeur and boldness of the hoax than by the imagined Xochitec city. A distinguished art critic declares the hoax to be the greatest work of art in fifty years, and dubs the project an inspired work of artistic patronage. All over America, Japan and Europe artists and poets respond to the hoax with new styles and a sudden new concern for the responsible construction of civic identity, a strange new concern for the value of the past. Just as Ossian, the fake Celtic epic, sparked the romantic movement in Europe, so the lost Xochitec city inspires a cultural revolution. After a time the fake ceramics and emerald-inlaid weapons that had been unloaded by the museums in the time of the unmasking regain and surpass their former value, enormously enriching the intelligent private collectors who had picked them up so cheaply in the crash.
The meaning of this parable is probably obvious. It may not matter how a city is deepened, but deepened it must be if it is to join the great cities of the world. Tudor England constructed a mythical past for itself when it invented its saga of King Brut, the refugee from the fall of Troy who gave his name to Britain and who was the ancestor of the legendary King Arthur. Contemporary Black scholars have been creating mythical pasts for African-Americans, appropriating the glories of ancient Egypt and even Greece. The Roman poet Virgil was perhaps the most breathtaking of all the mythmakers, borrowing the grand epic narrative of the Greek poet Homer six hundred years before him to provide a heroic lineage for the pushy commercial city of Rome and its ambitious young emperor Augustus.
Hoaxes and historical distortions are not necessary to deepen a city. But they prove, as extreme examples, how effective even the most dubious deepening can be. Short of a hoax, how does one deepen a city? Of course, the deepening does not necessarily have to be a literal digging down–there are very deep nomad cultures that scarcely leave a furrow in the sand. And sometimes the deepening need only be a richer appreciation of what we already have and what we already are.
Here is a poem I wrote about that.
And could it be
(in a Dallas suburb)
And could it be
This green suburban patio
That opens to a tree
Crippled with mistletoe–
Whose trellis bright with vine,
Where the doves nest yet,
Wisteria and jessamine–
Were heaven’s alphabet?
And what if I
After these years of seeking,
This mad incessant odyssey
Into the world’s innermost speaking,
After the to and fro,
Telling the world what I myself scarcely believed,
Seeking to sing the world into what I would know,
Were all the time deceived,
And the answer lay here below?
What if this patio
Were all the portal we
Could ever need to know?
What if the tree
Were withered so
That what will be and what will never be
Might both have space to grow?
Where the doves nest yet
In this suburban patio,
May then be all the sign we get
Of heaven’s great green archipelago.