As a young man at college at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, I wandered one warm Saturday afternoon down Hillsborough St, which formed the south border of campus, and walked its length until it ended at the North Carolina State Capitol. I wandered around the grounds, looked at the various statues and historical markers, and made my way inside. I was unaware that you could take a wander through the building without some organization or group sponsoring you (I had been there as a child with my fourth-grade class), and so I was thrilled to learn I was mistaken. While I fascinated by the building, by its history, by being able to peer into the legislative chambers (which I learned were now used only for ceremonial purposes, the actual lawmaking moved to a terribly ugly, modern building, around the corner on Jones Street), what I was most impressed by, most struck by, what I kept staring at, thinking about, mulling over, and being awed by, was a statue of George Washington in Roman garb.
My politics were muddled then. My politics are muddled now, but then they were not even thought through. My appreciation of the past, and “great men” was instinctual, but not conscious or purposeful or more than willy-nilly hazy appreciation of those we are “supposed” to appreciate. But I was overcome by some sense of emotion in this statue. Truly, Washington was a “great man,” though I do not know anymore if I would share his politics were I to be alive in his time. But he is, throughout time, an individual who engenders respect, and admiration, and asks that we think of greatness. Perhaps this is American-myth-making affecting me. But if so, so be it. We need myths.
We also need beauty. And I was struck by the simultaneous existence of beauty and myth, and the power and effect and meaning they created (even if I could not articulate it) in this statue.
The memory of this statue has always haunted me. The dry-mouthed feeling of awe, of wonder, of, well, majesty was unshakeable then, and has stayed so throughout all these many years (twelve? thirteen? how long ago and how recent to us is everything of any significance in our lives). It has stayed with me, but I had forgotten it.
And then I read this notice of a new exhibit of Antonio Canova, and the “serene beauty” of his works. And I am struck by their beauty, and the name Canova. And I am haunted again. I feel something I cannot articulate. And then I remember: it was he, Canova, who made that sculpture of Washington. And I sit here on a bitter February afternoon, with sleet and ice raining down and keeping me inside the home I own in Columbia, SC, and I am suddenly a much younger man not staying in my dorm for another second and wandering down the street in the mirror-Carolina’s capitol, sweating in the sun of spring.
I am not a well-travelled man, and in many ways do not care to be. But I wander, nevertheless, in ways that overwhelm me sometimes, with mysteries.