A friend was telling me this week how he felt that so little of our environment today seems to be have been constructed with an intention of permanence, or even a sense of what a permanent thing should be.
I read Stefan Zweig's description this morning of a journey he took from Paris in 1924, seeking respite from this city "that now explodes into a thousand flying sparks". He makes the hour and a half's journey to Chartres, to see its cathedral.
He is moved by its scale and purpose. I thought what he said was really interesting, and relevant:
"For this church had room for an entire generation and that is its heroic lesson, eternally big enough for all earthly aspirations, eternally able to exceed all possibilities and now forever a symbol of infinity. They simply wished to immortalise their faith, those who raised this cathedral in the heart of this flat country, forging in stone to preserve their pious will beyond their own time.
For never again will such works arise in our epoch, which measures time in a different way and lives at an altogether different pace: man will build no more cathedrals.
Our plans demand accomplishment at speed, our rhythm of life becomes ever more frantic, and there is no single work that lasts beyond a generation and none even that reaches beyond a single life. We who thanks to a spark are capable of communicating with another continent in a second, we no longer know how to articulate our being across the slowness of stones, the infinitude of years.
Our miracles are manageable and intellectual, our dreams more compact. Now the soul takes leave of the huge rising form of something that has become alien to it, like the Pyramids or the Parthenon; we have lost our capacity for the eternal, which the world itself has gained, and our capacity to incarnate the spirit of a whole people or the genius of a time in a single work. So then, it's over: men will build no more cathedrals."
But then Zweig travels back towards Paris:
"And yet, as the return train made its way through the darkening evening landscape, before the sign itself, the presentiment of Paris loomed: the giant city, a glowing cupola atop a reddish vault on the horizon, rising up into an invisible sky...
Indestructable, this glowing dome of light reigns above the seething nocturnal city, this union of countless electrical energies and the ferverently pulsing lives of millions forms the most impressive cathedral of our epoch... Radiant with celestial light and raised on high in the listening night, this new cathedral of Paris would perhaps have appeared to the builders of yesterday just as splendid, as mighty and divine as the works they left seem now to our eyes.
Epochs have used different signs to engrave their face on the landscape of the earth, and nothing is more wonderful than in the space of an hour to read, to understand and to love (as much as they may seem strangers to each other) one sign and the other expressing their will to live."As I said, Zweig wrote this in 1924. Posted by Mark Charmer. Sunday 6 March 2011.