Asserting Our Lack of Connection

From Richard Todd’s The Thing Itself

“Dean MacCannell has some pointed things to say on the subject of preservation. He argues that it is a characteristic gesture of modernism. In the act of trying to save the old from destruction, we are asserting our lack of connection to that world. The antipreservationists in town don’t use that language exactly, but they may in fact be feeling the act of preservation as a gesture that alienates them from their surroundings. Another way they wouldn’t talk would be to describe themselves as ‘idealists,’ but that’s what they are – not, as they like to maintain, very ‘practical-minded’ at all. Indeed they are preservationists too, but what they want to preserve is an idea, not a thing. They claim to remember, or at least to have inherited a memory of, a community that functioned organically, without the ‘artificial’ interventions of people who would impose regulations, declare buildings or land inviolate.”

Should one preserve an old house, or should one improve it because that’s what the old owner, given the chance, would probably have done? This conflict makes me think of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description of Gatsby’s house, from The Great Gatsby

“A brewer had built it early in the ‘period’ craze a decade before, and there was a story that he’d agreed to pay five years’ taxes on all the neighboring cottages if the owners would would have their roofs thatched with straw. Perhaps their refusal took the heart out of his plan to Found a Family — he went into immediate decline. His children sold his house with the black wreath still on the door. Americans, while willing, even eager, to be serfs, have always been obstinate about being peasantry.”

While Fitzgerald’s immediate point is that to make something look “historical” can seem condescending, the last sentence in that passage has an even wider resonance… the idea that Americans don’t mind being oppressed nearly as much as they mind being regulated…

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