PEEKS and PIQUES!
By RAYMOND J. STEINER
ART TIMES July/August 2009
DURING MY YEARS as a student in elementary and high school, the study of history was never one of my favorite subjects. For some reason — and it may be common among most young people — hearing about different countries or peoples was hopelessly irrelevant to my everyday life. There was too much on the streets of Brooklyn where I spent my pre-teen years to occupy my time and energies, too much learning how to hold my own in the intricate ‘political’ web of neighborhood gangs, too much effort in learning and earning what I now understand are called “street creds”. What did I care about the conquests and cultures and contributions of people of the past or on the other side of the world? How would all that help me in my daily survival? More than likely we all need some track record of personal history before we are able to see beyond ourselves to take the long view — at least I did. My first real sense of ‘history’ — at least in the abstract — dawned on me when I was an adult, a teacher in fact, and it came to me one summer while on a trip to Concord, Massachusetts. I was actually ‘hunting down’ insights into the likes of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, visiting such places as Walden Pond and Emerson’s Manse — ‘field trips’, if you will, to add some depth to my classes in English when I returned to teaching in the Fall. The “history aha
!” came when, during my meandering in the vicinity of Emerson’s homestead, I happened on a rather nondescript wooden bridge that crossed a small stream but seemed to lead only to some open fields beyond. I crossed and, on the way back, noticed a little sign that proclaimed that this was the very place where “the shot heard around the world” was fired. I’m not sure what transpired inside me — maybe a re-run of that old TV show “You Are There!” or something — but my being in that spot had the effect of a stone thrown into a lake. Time waves flowed outward and back and from then on I was hooked. Over the subsequent years, I’ve allowed myself to “go with the flow” whenever I discovered that I was in some spot where momentous things happened. I realize, of course, that, considering the long stream of mankind’s inhabitation of the planet, there is probably no
place on earth where at least something
hasn’t occurred to make it a memorable location. Still, visiting (in no particular order of importance or impact) Mendelssohn’s home (and his watercolors!), Goethe’s student hangout and the Old Jewish Ghetto, all in Leipzig; the Roman Forum; Stonehenge; Remagen (Germany); Stratford-on-Avon; Berlin (before and after); Amsterdam; the Alps (anywhere
in the Alps); the Great Wall; Beethoven’s home in Bonn; the Uffizi; Dachau; Westminster Abbey; the Prado; York Cathedral; Sans Souci
(outside Berlin);Dickinson’s home in Amherst; Dresden; the Coliseum; Brenner’s Pass; Poet’s Walk (Shelley); Prague; Mozart’s home in Salzburg and, Augsburg, his father’s birthplace; Cararra; Basel (the home of my Grandfather) and Munich (that of my Grandmother); the Louvre; Valhalla (Regensburg); Bruges; the Cliffs of Moher; Cologne’s Opera House; Arles; the Bund in Shanghai; Rubens’ home in Antwerp; London Tower; Caspar David Friedrich’s painting sites in Rügen; Venice — all resonated —and still resonate — knitting the multi-threads of history into an interconnected shawl that enfolds my thoughts. I might extend the list, but you get the idea. Me, picking up a stone at the Circus in Rome (it lies on my dining room table), gazing at the Danube from various standpoints along its shores, pondering Pest from the heights of Buda (thinking of the Roman soldiers surveying the plain across the river (now Pest) with Attila’s tents spread before them), feeling a shivering thrill as I walked through the rooms of Shakespeare’s home, craning my neck to get all of Michelangelo’s handiwork before my eyes at the Chapel, awed by the tomb of Charlemagne in the Aachen Cathedral, again craning my neck as I took in the soaring heights of Cologne’s Dom, inwardly cringing when I visited Dachau in 1953, trying to ‘feel’ my barbarian ancestors as they crossed the Alps into the grandeur of Rome, losing my self and soul to the beauties of the chateaux and flowers along the Loire — all the time knowing that I am but one in a long line of my fellows who have passed that way. Nope. No longer was “history” dry as dust once I ‘heard’ that shot fired by that early American at the small wooden bridge — no longer the province and interest of other minds once my mind learned to simply follow the reverberations around the globe. Today, for good or bad, the reading of history closely follows my two first passions — art and philosophy — and books on both ancient and modern history now command an imposing presence in my library.