Exile and Elegant Decay

by Raphaël Beauregard-Lacroix

Time has stopped in the Serenissima. Cars, one of the most common aspects of modernity, are barely seen. It feels like an endless pedestrian quarter, a result of the foot travel and of the maze you find yourself in. While Venice’s history is certainly rich, it is clear that minds such as Daniel Burnham and Georges Haussmann played no role in the development of the city and countless time you find yourself facing a narrow canal, regardless of the signs, having no choice but to turn back (or hail a gondola.)

Except for the Guggenheim collection, a branch of the Met in Venice, which lets you fill your mind with Max Ernst’s paintings for your future nightmares, most of the art that you’ll find in the museums belong to the 16th and 17th centuries, times of glory and affluence for the Republic. Yet the touristy flyers will all say that the city is fresh and vibrant with its modern systems of dams to regulate the tides, public transportation by vaporetto, luxurious hotels, Zara, Armani, Gucci and tutti quanti.

A sinking museum as some see it: overcrowded by cruise ships and threatened in the not-so-distant future by the rise of sea level, the city physically sinks while the water gets higher. Some call it elegant decay, the slow yet apparently unstoppable march of time (and humans), bringing the city down in the canals. Notwithstanding all the engineering feats deployed, the city seems to be trapped in certitude of damnation.

Certitude of damnation is interestingly accurate. Is not Europe on its own elegant decay? Slowly but certainly, sinking, its fate sealed and its pockets ballasted by euro coins? On the verge of this nice trip, I also visited a friend of mine, Italian, now living in Trento (North) for studies. He has lost all his faith in his country and, not with an ironical smile to his ancestry from earlier in the 20th, he has decided to emigrate to the US in search of a better life.

His critic is vivid and incisive. Ready to pay the big price of American education, he longs for a job to the measure of his talents, and paid accordingly. Berlusconi was not a very good man, but he is not the cancer of Italy as some see him, he argues continuously. He was just like everybody else: playing with the system, evading taxes, finding a way around. If some are looking for a common ground in all Europeans, he sees it in total inaction and immense inertia. Europe is dead; it’s not going anywhere anymore. An EU was tried and failed. Smothering bureaucracy pulled the whole Vieux Continent down in a positive retroaction spiral of mediocrity and inaction. In that view of things, the financial crisis would just be the icing on a fundamentally rotten cake. No matter the cause of it all: I’m sick of it. I have the right to deserve.

That’s a cold shower for the “American” that I am, host of this ever romantic view of Europe and all its “oldness”, its “intelligence”, its unique view of progress, its fast trains, its pedestrian streets. Yet, this whole idea of elegant decay linked with Venice unfortunately seems to be a general state of things. It reminds me of the Greek philosopher, who thought verity would come, rushing at him, pouring over from the “Nature”, while he sat, idly watching it. Maybe by staring the wall long enough, we will finish by understanding why, why is it decaying, and oh-how-so-elegantly, let’s continue watching, it’s so beautiful anyway… And while we do, this very Nature claims one more step of the stairs, one more floor of the house, giving it to the corroding seawater. Be a tourist in your own place; since we are all doomed anyway, let’s take a picture of it and put it on Facebook.

It sounds like acceptance of irrationality. Why things always have been, must be and will be so? -Because. That is what the Venetian street tells you, when you end up in a dead-end: Because. It’s a feeling, that it is so infinitely heavy, that Europe is so infinitely heavy that you cannot change it; you can sit and stare, or get sick and run away.


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