28 August, 2007


Last week I wrote, anticipating our visit to rural Wales, 'There are no signs, no architectures, in the mountains'. How wrong I was! Naturally, you knew I was only being ironical. Now it is true, joygrantit, that the view from our bedroom window was merely beautiful:

And it is true that my wife and I were able to roam, clamber and totter on the rocks of the Elan Valley, scaring the local sheep, and peering long over the long dams, monumental and still, with no Welsh, nor any language at all; nothing to analyse, nothing to disturb the thoughtlessness. Briefly, I wondered if cwrw (beer) might be related to Latin cervisium. (It isn't.) But Wales is, as I should have admitted in the first place, full of signs and architectures—even datestones. The landscape, remarkable as it is, can only have been a fine chasing for richer treasures, things to see, things to ponder, and most of all, things to say.


In the evening we drove down to Llandrindod Wells, where the townsfolk, for reasons unknown to us, were engaged in the last and climactic day of a week-long Victorian festival—after mocked-up hymns cum commentibus at the bandstand, we all lit flaming torches and ambled through the streets to the hill overseeing the lake, where shadowy authorities with megaphones and good cheer sent fireworks thundering up into the night sky. I got a few bangs on film, the ash from the torches fluttered its way into my wools, the local children brandished laser-blue batons, and smoked, rebelliously, and Mrs. Roth remarked that despite all the excesses of today's cinematic spectacular, a display of fireworks retains its capacity to impress. And so it does.


We saw a handful of individuals dressed in some semblance of Victorian costume, but only, in the end, a handful. The overall significance of the festival seemed lost in the procession, and among the Disney-branded bouncy castles at the lake. I wanted to reject all of this. It is apparent that our time has given way to a moribund parasitism upon the past. We are no longer content to learn about history—we must now participate in it, or rather in some simulacrum thereof. In the Middle Ages, as is well known, classical figures were represented in mediaeval dress—ancient history thus existed in dialogue with the charismatic force of the mediaeval present. It was the same in the Renaissance, and even as late as the nineteenth century, when writers and artists of all stripes were Victorianizing the past. Now, rather, we Victorianize the present, but it is a half-hearted Victoriana, gleaming sterilely in amber. We have begun to lack identity. But since when? And whose fault is it?


Still more impressive than pyrotechnics was Portmeirion, a village-sized folly on the Welsh coast, forty-odd miles north of Aberystwyth, hidden without signs, and yet thronged with visitors, with whom we had commingled earlier in the day. The whole thing was masterminded by Clough Williams-Ellis, an eccentric old gent in knickerbockers and crocus-yellow socks, who began construction in 1926, and brought the project to a close in 1976, at the age of ninety. In the promotional video on continuous loop in a little hut at one edge of the village, his resurrected voice informs us that he wanted to share with others his taste for the elegance of the past, with a ‘home for fallen buildings’. And so Portmeirion is a junkyard of historical artefacts and architectures: a Walpole colonnade, two golden Sanskrit sculptures on high pedestals, a Gothicky portico, campanile and Italianate dome, wedding-cake façade, lilypond, jolly seated Buddha, walls painted in gay Mediterraneanesque pastels, Chinese lion, e cosa via.

All you need to know about Portmeirion, and of course more, can be found at the usual place. But you see that it is the same: the same creeping dependency on the beauties of the past, the same reluctance to shape anew, or even to talk to the past. Portmeirion is without time. It is an eternal pleasant present. When the silver band, full of pretty girls and handsome young lads, neatly bowtied, struck up a programme of light classics, I imagined that I was in Pepperland. Younger girls hitched up their summer frocks and plashed about in the fountains without getting wet, delighted by the eager and spritely rudeness of the playing. It was a grotesque—an intriguingly grotesque—sort of charm. And even if I reject that—is it any worse than mere beauty?

My wife and I left Wales even more in love than when we'd arrived.


Persephone said...

Hyfryd! Have you heard of a poet/forger/stonemason named Iolo Morgannwg? His manipulations of historical/mythological signs have had a lasting effect on Welsh literary culture, and are a fine example of an appropriation (or creation) of the past for contemporary purposes.

May said...

Hopefully children will arrive soon.

John Cowan said...

And when Stephen Dedalus (no Welshman he, but in his funky way equally part of the fabled Celtic Twilight) declares that he is going to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated etc. etc., the Hephaistean imagery pulls the wool over our eyes by leading us away from the plain meaning of "forge" here.

But let us with a deep breath reject all that and plainly state: All Cultur-y Is Forgery. And shall ever be so. Quoth Frye, there is no period of "Gothic" writing in English, but the Gothic Revival stretches over its entire history, from Beowulf to the present day. And so while the present is parasitical on the past, the past (in the only form in which the past really exists) is equally parasitical on the present, from which it takes its meaning.

The Thurrodowists understand this.

Anonymous said...

Dear Roth,
Whatever the shortcomings of Clough Williams-Ellis' eclectic creation, I'm gladdened by your final sentence that you and the Mrs left Wales more in love than when you arrived.
Bravo! How green is your valley!

Conrad H. Roth said...

Diolch, Persephone. No, I don't know of Morgannwg; he sounds somewhat similar to Rowland Jones. Thanks for the tip.

May--hopefully not too soon.

John, true, but there are more and less interesting ways in which the past can be parasitical upon the present.

Anonymous--AT, I presume?--yes, and let it not be thought that I did not enjoy Portmeirion, nor that I did not find it fascinating.

Pedro Eduardo said...

Hey Conrad, sorry for the delay. Thanks for the Fulcanelli. I meant to reply soon after you posted it, but lost internet contact afterwards. I meant to say something about Hervás y Panduro and Sassetti, I think. Best wishes.