Recently I was watching a documentary the French filmmaker Louis Malle produced in the late 1960s about India. In this film, which to me was as interesting a period piece reflecting the ideas, values, and prejudices of the era in which it was made as the subject matter of the film itself, one scene replayed in my mind many times over the course of the next few days. Malle, in what to me was an incredibly intrusive style, filmed some women creating swirling patterns on a large outdoor terrace. In typical 1960s style he refrained from finding out why or what they were actually doing, filming them as though he was creating a wildlife documentary, replete with portentous statements about the women preserving values and actions that have existed since time immemorial. However, the themes on which he pontificated did stay with me: Why are they creating these lovely patterns? What is the meaning of this art? Indeed what is the purpose of art in general?
The motivation for this project is a constant hovering presence in the background. One problem is that this project is attempting to do many things and thus far, has succeeded in doing very few. It is not a question of inspiration. I could write all day every day about many of the topics I intend to present on this platform. The larger problem is tying all the varied strands together into a cohesive theme which will allow the entries, although seemingly disparate and wide-ranging, to be seen to be connected in an overall pattern, as in a spectrum. The theme is what slows things down, the swamp through which I find myself slogging somewhat aimlessly. Inspiration strikes readily when one knows where the road lies, but the traveler hesitates to move forward when it is dark and there is no light to guide him on his journey.
So it is that I have started by shedding light on the roads that traversed Boston and its hinterland in the Colonial Era. In my mind I am generating a base upon which I can add layers of color or new patterns. The roads I am traveling are both literal and figurative, and have been traveled by many before me. “Traveling” these roads affords me time to reflect on the meaning of this project. I do not mean to become pompous and overbearing but to me it gets at the very questions regarding the purpose of art. The first question revolves around the definition of art and whether this project qualifies as art at all. The second question addresses the meaning and purpose of art. Fortunately there are a great many thinkers who have pondered this question. However, in the interest of humility and a fear of demonstrating that I have no expertise whatsoever on this much discussed topic, I do not care to invoke Plato or Shakespeare or indeed, invite comparisons between this project and the work of the aforementioned towering figures.
I will, however, call upon a more recent writer to clarify elegantly, indeed in a much more articulate manner than someone who has never traveled this road, the very ideas that have been germinating in my mind these past months about the purpose of my efforts. In an essay entitled “Inspiration and Obsession in Literature and Life,” a lecture given at the New York Public Library in December which appeared in a shorter form in the New York Review of Books (Volume LXII, number 13, 80-84), Joyce Carol Oates writes that “art is the formal commemoration of life in its variety- the novel, for instance, is ‘historic’ in its embodiment in a specific place and time, and its suggestion that there is meaning to our actions. It is virtually impossible to create art without an inherent meaning, even if the meaning is presented as mysterious and unknowable.” This statement popped out of the page when I read it, for in two sentences, Oates has crystallized the swirling, flowing, amorphous but tangentially linked ideas in my head into a precise summary of what I am trying to do. I want to commemorate life in its variety, both in a specific time and place as well as a specific place over time, and that place is Boston and the time is both now and somewhat ambitiously, the four centuries that Boston has existed.
At this point the reader is surely becoming convinced that these are the ravings of an egomaniac. After all, there is a surfeit of histories of Boston, there are decades of editions of the Boston Globe and other newspapers and magazines which over the years have addressed the quotidian aspects of Boston “culture,” and there are many local historical societies which are attempting to preserve and protect the cultural artifacts that remain from bygone eras. I do not disagree on the whole with any of the above statements, and indeed I will make liberal use of all of the above resources to make this project as informative and interesting as possible. Perhaps I am overly ambitious, but the fact remains that I believe I have something to add to the picture: indeed I want to create my own picture of the city in which I live and to recover some of the voices of the past which are in danger of being drowned in a babble of contemporary chatter, to paraphrase Ingrid Rowland.
The “meaning” of this project is still amorphous and may yet change as my ideas evolve. One clear purpose, however, is to co-opt the very forces that contribute to the babble, the ubiquitous social media outlets and online platforms (such as the WordPress platform I am using to send this out to the world) that have invaded even the most private moments of contemporary life, to attempt to try and ride the wave of fleeting inconsequentiality that flows through the device on which you are reading this entry, to render more permanent some aspects of the world in which I live and the place in which I live, which are increasingly evanescent and in danger disappearing altogether. By walking, that most ancient form of transport, I travel in a manner that best suits my purpose. The pace of a walk is exactly the right speed for me to search for what it is I seek, to see the interplay of the historical framework and the contemporary configuration of a specific place.
So, is this art? If history is art, then this is art. I consider myself to be creating patterns and images which are meant to be permanent, which to me is art. I also like to think of myself as a scientist, or at least to possess a scientific inclination. Thus I intend to be as rigorous as possible in checking my facts and making sure that what I record is as accurate a reflection of what I see or what I have uncovered as possible. In the end I would characterize this project as a combination of the artistic and the scientific, using data and facts to create images. I want to create swirling patterns much like the women in the Louis Malle film and if, in the future, this project remains available as a document, I would love the readers of the future to find the prejudices and values underlying the creation of these entries to be as interesting as the entries themselves.