Cusco, Peru—High in the Andes, spreading from the central plaza seen everywhere in Spanish lands, run narrow streets intended for earlier times and now choked with traffic, chilly but not cold, always threatening rain that doesn’t come. Not Kansas, Dorothy.
As almost everywhere south of the Rio Bravo, the church dominates the plaza, huge and solid, lasting, Catholicism being a universal language as much as Spanish, a glue uniting the continent and north to Texas. In every town and city and country, the Mass is the same, the symbolism, the saints, the sign of the cross. The Church is an imposing thing, old, very old, passing from the world perhaps in Europe but alive here. While the liturgy is the same, the style, the flavor and ornamentation of churches are idiosyncratic. Before the Industrial Revolution, the world was not designed at corporate.
Late night, Cusco
There is a universality about the old sections of Latin towns, both geographic and temporal, in their narrow and winding streets, their arcades and fountains. Cusco is nothing special as towns go. For most of time most of the world has lived thus, with a certain chaotic anarchism of architecture and layout. It isn’t particularly Christian. You find the same walkable and unplanned streets in old Jerusalem, Taibei, Istanbul, Delhi, Katmandu. The new parts are of steel and glass and Toyota dealerships. I do not think it a good idea.
Cusco is the world until recently. There is nothing of Houston here. No towering indistinguishable office blocks or great roaring highways uncrossable by humans, no gray sprawling expanses of outlying parking lots and identical malls. America is not the only manifiestation, but it is the progenitor, a land without a past, a present it doesn’t like, and no faint idea how to arrange a livable future. But it is what the world will be. The United States has usually gotten first to what is coming, for better or worse.
Perhaps the universalization of Houston is inevitable. We do not use technology. It uses us, and shapes us. The invention of the automobile made roads inevitable, which made remote suburbs inevitable, which made malls necessary. The internet and its friends make globalization inevitable, and thus, slowly but surely, makes the mass consumerist society of the US, planned at corporate, inevitable. We are just along for the ride.
But Cusco, the Andes, and fog. One church in particular in Cusco struck me as gorgeous with its gilt and its baroque curlicues. If it were in Europe it would be in all the books of art history, but somehow the greater world remains largely unaware of Latin America.
This brought to mind the deterioration of ruthless bastards over the centuries. We still have them, ambitious generals and merciless plutocrats who constitute the goverment, as they always have, but the aesthetics has gone out of them. The bastards of classical Rome were no better than ours in such morals as they had, but they enjoyed much better taste. In Pompei the rich built classy public baths and put attractive statuary all about, probably to curry favor and flatter their vanities, but they did it. It is striking that the city of Rome itself, enjoying probably less than one percent of the disposable income f of Washington, built lovely municipal temples unsurpassed today, while DC lines Pennsylvania Avenue with ponderously ugly edifices in Federal Greek. I tell you, our bastards have fallen to a new low.
It is not the United States but modernity that embraces blocky functionality. Yes, the taste of a tepeworm predominates in the US. Almost any small Mexican town with have more of beauty than, say, Arlington County, Virginia, a moneyed region adjoining the federal capital.
But Tokyo is as bad, Brasilia worse, Mexico City a horror.
Oddly, this might be more agreeable than Malldom.
In many respects the ancient towns haven’t changed since classical Alexandria. You pass little shops sunk in the walls of serpentine lanes, markets with stalls selling everything, smells of cooking and tanned leather, proprietors shilling passers-by, buy guaraches, cookware, cebollas, tapestries. You find the same wares in Walmart, but not the life, not the vigor, the connection to millenia receding backward.
But now is not then. Walking come late afternoon along a climbing, curling street, barely an allley, we glanced into shops with, recessed from the damp stone of the street, a thick plate-glass glass door with computer screens glowing behind and bright electric lights. It is possible, briefly I suppose, to have the old and human in conjunction with pipe-lined super-scalars and optimized compilers.
Modernity has undeniable advantages. I am sixty-five and have all my teeth, the first condition being unlikely in the Athens of Pericles and the second a greater miracle than a virgin’s giving birth to an iron goat. And yet the price is great. To speak of humanity, of community, in an age of continent-wide operators of commercial parking lots sounds, well, touchy-feely. As people today pop Prozac and drive along crawling freeways to bacteria-free developments with neighbors they have never met, they can thank God that they do not live in a primitive town with lovely fountains and the familiarity of years. How we progress.
Night in Cusco
Photo: Violeta Gonzales
But I wonder. I remember, long ago now, wandering the downtown of Taibei with a friend in search of food. A Chinese night is not like a night in Athens, Alabama, with a BB gun and a dime for Tasty Freeze. (Though I’m not sure it’s any better.) The stalls were small, with gloriously lovely maidens (perhaps) stirring fragrant concoctions in woks, smells enough to baffle a blood hound, glistening squid hanging like pink gloves.
We hadn’t at that time learned enough Chinese to order rice, so we sat on stools in the alley and tried to communicate. These were back streets you might never find your way out of. Nothing from corporate. Every stall with a different flavor to its rice.
Now, if you are a twenty-seven-year-old gringo and encounter young Chinese girls, you develop yellow fever in a heartbeat, and it never leaves you. I mean, class is class. But that’s neither here nor there. Point is, we were in a small-scale, utterly non-corporate alley with great individuality and astonishingly good food, and the girls were trying to figure out what these interesting yang-gwei-dz wanted. Finally I drew a rice plant as I imagined it on an envelope. Giggles. Rice.
(Irrelevant to the puproses of this essay, if some insufferable gringa dyke feminist wants to say something characterisitally stupid about “submissive women,” she ought to try arm-wrestling with a back-hoe. She’d have a better chance of winning than against a–god help you–“submissive” Chinese woman..)
Point is, I’m not sure the new sterility and remote control have a hell of a lot to offer as agasint how people have always lived.
I’m not going to try to explain this. Some things don’t explain well. Do you know where your daughter is?