Saturday, October 2, 2010

The National Mall: a reading

In 2007 I first came to the United States for any prolonged period of time and I stayed in Washington DC. One night that summer, an idea struck me: the National Mall represents the governing trinity of America and this trinity closely resembles the Christian trinity. This idea has stuck with me, amused me, but also baffled me ever since.

Let me explain.

The center of the National Mall, as I understand it, is formed by the Washington Monument, dedicated to George Washington, founding father of the United States of America. In the Christian trinity, God-the-Father is the creator (like George Washington is the founder), however he cannot be represented figuratively - as per the first or second commandment (depending on your bible). And indeed George Washington is not represented figuratively here but as a gigantic obelisk. Some will say it is appropriate the father figure is represented by a giant phallus, but something that has always struck me is the two red blinking lights that are on all four sides, near the top of the monument. At night these give you the distinct illusion that you are being watched from up high.

Another aspect of the trinity is God-the-Son, better known as Jesus. In most Christian theologies, God, in the form of his son, Jesus, came to earth and sacrificed himself, thereby renewing (or perhaps restoring) the covenant between Himself and his people. A cataclysmic event that eventually led to a better world. On the National Mall it can be said that this aspect of the trinity is represented by Abraham Lincoln, who sits to the west of George Washington, can be considered his 'son' (as the 16th successor-president of the Union). Lincoln gave up his life and resided over a cataclysmic event that eventually restored the Union. One could even say that Lincoln, by giving his live, winning the civil war, and abolishing slavery, made the Union 'more perfect' - closer to the ideals in which it was conceived. In Christian iconography, Jesus is usually represented as a human ('ecce homo', "look, this is a human", as Pilate said). And so, unlike God-the-Father and his equivalent George Washington, Lincoln in represented figuratively: a giant sitting in his chair. It is interesting to note that Lincoln resides to the west of Washington, surrounded by monuments representing the death of Americans who - according to official ideology - gave their lives to defend the Union: the Vietnam monument, the Korea War monument, the Second World War monument, and crossing the Memorial Bridge, Arlington Cemetery. This side of national Mall, under the setting ('dying') sun, is dedicated to the remembrance of death. In many mythologies (e.g. Aztec), the land of the dead is imagined to be to the west.

Following this line of thought: what is on the eastern half of the Mall? Here we find mostly museums: several Smithsonian museums, the National Gallery, the National Botanical Gardens. Monuments to Science, to Knowledge, if anything. Most importantly, however, here we find the third element of the trinity: the equivalent of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit came over the apostles and gave them the ability to speak in tongues and spread the word (the 'eu anggeleia', or good message). In Christian iconography the Holy Spirit is usually represented by a dove or, less commonly, a flame. However, what we find on the eastern end of the National Mall, and at the exact center of Washington DC, is House of Congress, on Capitol Hill. This is where American Democracy is practiced and, with all their disagreements, the inhabitants of the building sometimes may seem indeed to speak in tongues. The other components of the trinity may be dead, or history at least, but it is here at Congress that their legacy maintains a certain degree of agency to this day. The living spirit of American ideology, at the center of the center. (Washington DC was originally built to be at the very center of the United States, needless to say things have changed somewhat since then).

Now, what is the meaning of this? Is this some (sub)text inscribed into the landscape by some author? Probably not by any one author. Pierre l'Enfant, who designed the original master plan for Washington DC had planned an equestrian Washington Monument. The Lincoln Memorial sits on land that was not reclaimed from the swampy Potomac banks until the 20th Century and was itself not completed until the 1920's. The war monuments were not built until the 1980's and 1990's whereas Arlington Cemetery really is the result of an elaborate, cruel prank played on the confederate general Lee during the Civil War. (The cemetery was originally Lee's home and the first war dead to be were buried here were buried on his front lawn).

If an answer to the why of this text is not in any one author, I could make the claim that this reading represents some kind of essential truth about America, Americans, or American ideology. But perhaps the answer lies in myself and my own understanding of the United States. I have always been struck by some Americans' fetishization of the Founding Fathers, the Constitution and related documents. To some people in this country, these documents and these men represent some kind of inalterable essence of what America is or rather: should be (the founding fathers as justification for some kind of change, closer to what they 'really intended'). From this fetishization it is easy to make the extra step and cast these figures in mythical (biblical) terms and in doing so I reinforce my own reading of America as a secular, but essentially Christian nation.

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