Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Vanity of Human Wishes

Well-read fans of your scribe's blog will know that he did not make up the title for today's post; credit for that goes to Samuel Johnson, the Great Lexicographer, who published a poem by that name in 1749. His warning to would-be scholars and writers is typical of the monitory tone of the poem (full text at Johnson, Vanity of Human Wishes, 1749):

Yet hope not Life from Grief or Danger free,
Nor think the Doom of Man revers'd for thee:
Deign on the passing World to turn thine Eyes,
And pause awhile from Learning to be wise;
There mark what Ills the Scholar's Life assail,
Toil, Envy, Want, the Patron, and the Gaol.

The patron in question, of course, was Lord Chesterfield, who ignored Johnson's pleas for financial assistance until the Dictionary was about to appear, at which point he sallied forth to attempt to snag the dedication to which he thought himself entitled. See Johnson's letter to him for a classic example of irony at its best:

Samuel Johnson's letter to Lord Chesterfield

Johnson's poem title came to mind as the New Haven Coliseum imploded this morning at 7:30 AM. Your scribe had watched these towers rise over the city in the late 60s and early 70s, slowly but inexorably blocking out more and more of the sky. Who would have thought that just a few decades later they would be deliberately razed? All that work, all those dollars, gone for naught.

Sorta reminds one of our tear-down passion here in Greenwich. Lovely houses, some of them historic, are destroyed each year so that Wall Street bonuses can create garish, oversized McMansions with no redeeming aspects to their arrogant and boastful facades. If your scribe had to guess, he would postulate that some - perhaps many - of these monstrosities will themselves meet the wrecker's ball if and when good taste makes a return to Greenwich at some future time.

The razing of the Pickwick Arms Hotel still ranks as one of the worst rapes perpetrated on this town, IMHO. And the soulless office complex that replaced it likewise ranks as one of the least successful architectural excresences that blot our local landscape, in the eyes of many locals (including yours truly).

Well, one could go on, but you get the point. Those who built the Pickwick Arms in 1920 thought they were building a landmark for all time. All time, in that case, was a mere 50 years. Today, the hotel is just a fond memory in the minds of a steadily decreasing number of citizens. Yes, dear reader, Johnson had it right: our human wishes and aspirations are as vain and empty as the newcomers who are ruining our town for us. But we can still try to preseve the beauty we have left, and honor the memories of those who strove to create that beauty, whether their works survive or not.


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