America, And The Course Of Empire
Updated: Apr 14, 2021
Along the wall of the study in which I pass my days, a small but sacred place to which, in my constant search for solitude and peace, for tranquility and reflection, I continually repair, there hangs a sequence of paintings. It is, to use what might seem a rare and unnecessarily ornamental term, a word, indeed, at whose mere utterance, the pulse of the art scholar will experience a faint but palpable flutter, a pentaptych, or a five-paneled work.
Though not quite physically paneled (a point of clarity on which the art scholar is sure to correct me), it may as well be, for it does what only the best paneled works can do. For proof of the effect, one need only call to mind such masterful works as those produced by the inerrant hands of Hieronymus Bosch or Peter Paul Rubens. These were artists by whose unmatched brilliance and supreme technique, even those of us most insensitive to art can’t help but be moved. The paneled work, such as theirs, creates in its entirety, not only delectable parts by which the whole is made full, but a veritable story from its start till its end. It creates a movement of the imagination along whose evocative, near half-dozen images, a pair of rapt eyes can seamlessly wander.
And can those eyes be blamed for their delight in moving about? Upon looking up, the wondrous images by which they’re greeted, the alluring pictures by which their attention is detained, are enlivened by the sometimes steady, though reliably large and sweeping hand of Thomas Cole—master and originator of the Hudson River School.
Cole’s school, of which he was both professor and student, alumnus and teacher, was the first, though doubtless not the last of any real and lasting prominence to which the American race can lay claim. A Briton by birth, Cole was a Romantic of a distinctly American type, an Atlantic-spanning, Western spirit who bestrode two very distinct lands. One, that from whose fertile soil he initially sprang, was elegant and archaic and bound by the festooned fetters of sophistication and class. The other, to which he arrived, and with which he grew, was unabashed and novel, young and heedless, radically independent and open to all.
And what else could he be, if not the infusion of all these things? An arrival to this land at the age of seventeen, he was the natural product of both England and America, empire and liberty, Wordsworth and Whitman, Milton and Emerson. He absorbed in his person those great influences through whom nature found her liveliest expression, and verse her finest words.
He took that expression, absorbed it, and re-created it in medium of paint. Never had a canvas looked so poetic, and never had a brush swept such dulcet lines. While America may have been to him an awesome terra incognito, an overwhelmingly new and uncharted land into whose dark secrets he hoped to probe, Romanticism was an old and familiar comfort in which he could always confide. It was the sole aesthetic quality by which his boundless soul was shaped, the constant, glorious star around which his peculiar character revolved.
All the better, for America is, at its essence, a quite Romantic place, thus making him, a recent immigrant, a natural fit. America is, despite the noblest efforts of its Roman-enthused founders and its Athenian-inspired architects, a land unconducive to the formality of classicism. The tough rigidity of elegant proportion and unbending line are constraints against which this bursting and untamed land naturally bristles. Its energy invites neither stiffness nor stoicism, perpendicularity nor Platonism. Its character simply won’t sit still for the application of those standards for which other, quieter countries are much better suited. We in America need grandeur, vigor, and the exertion toward a destiny manifestly ordained. We need a canvas to which there’s no limit, a sky atop which no restrictive ceiling rests, and a people forever willing to traverse them both.
Cole felt this, and depicted it as no other artist yet could.
His astonishing vision and, as I currently see it, the state of America today, is best represented by his most famous work, The Course of Empire—that same sequence upon which, as I write, I can’t help but gaze. In five rather large panels, it depicts precisely the scenario that its title proclaims. No lengthy prologue is required to view it. The title of the work, and the language of the strokes, speak directly to the heart with which it converses.
At the farthest position on the left, as if beginning to read a line in any language but that of the Hebrew sect, the first sentence of this work is mumbled softly but discernibly. Spoken aloud, you’ll hear it echo in your room, and the words by which you’re met will vibrate, Savage State.
It’s the work’s primitive display of the barbarous state of man, a youthful time of life for a being who, having but recently suffered the expulsion from Eden, was understandably concerned with little more than the propagation of his hairless species and the gathering of his next meal. That radiant gift of Prometheus, fire, has only recently come into his grasp. The men by whom this divine flame is maintained recognize the fragility of its composition, and they preserve it with the same ardor as they would their own lives. Near them, a man hunts for a hind, and we, hungry viewers, nearly taste the impending venison on our lips.
The panel into which this savagery transitions is called, less intimidatingly, the Arcadian State. It is tranquil, unblemished, and very nearly divine. In the background, a crude but symmetrical temple is erected to the gods, and, in the fore, a woman encourages the play of her frolicsome children. Like Faustulus before his reception of Rome’s eponymous son, a shepherd tends his flock in the middle of the painting. He does so, as every good pastoralist should, with unfailing attention and insouciant grace. Elsewhere, the tillage of the soil has begun, as our inventive man has discovered a method to yoke his ox. In so doing, he's learned to outsource his burden, relieve his toil, and conserve his limited strength. His crop, yet unseen, is sure to be bountiful, as the number of mouths to which it’ll be disseminated grows by the day.
With a movement of the eye to the right, the scene by which it’s met suddenly explodes. It introduces itself with loud magnificence and a vibrant grandeur, a welcome by which the helpless jaw can do nothing but drop.
Succumbing to the gravity of Cole’s heavy genius, one sees before him the empire entering that mature state for which it always unknowingly yearned—the Consummation of its life. This, the largest of the five panels and their centerpiece, is the aesthetic apogee; it’s the summit to which Cole’s formidable talent climbs, and the height toward which every viewer’s pleasure is lifted.
The setting is lavishly adorned and classically structured. Corinthian columns support chryselephantine gods, elaborate friezes introduce capacious buildings, crude and jagged stones succumb to curved and elegant arches, and lofty domes bifurcate heaven and earth. Purple and red, the colors of royalty, are draped in so promiscuous a way, that you’d think this a convocation of kings to which, unwittingly, you too had been invited. In this realm, through which there seems to permeate a ceaseless jubilee, all is sybaritic, all joyous and fun.
The scene is sumptuous. It's an image of pure ornamentation, from which no expense is withheld. Everywhere, so far as the eye can see, it’s the lavish enjoyment of earlier labors, those, specifically, of the intrepid forebears from whom these happy people so recently descend. It is, in a word, the very pinnacle of civilization, the consummation of culture, prosperity, politics, religion, and wealth.
None would expect so many gilded and attractive institutions to vanish, to descend into the tumult and horror of a violent and inglorious death. Sadly, the beautiful artifacts of Consummation proved themselves more ephemeral than the civilized man might hope; they made not the leap to the terror of Cole’s penultimate state. They dissolved, there and in that moment, in the impermanent canvas atop which they were splashed.
The fourth panel, entitled, Destruction, is what one pictures as having happened to Rome, the famed “eternal city”, that inviolable home of such men as Horace, Brutus, Cicero, and Caesar (and, in our day, the two-hundred-and-sixtieth Pope). In the beginning of the fifth century, for reasons too intricate, contentious, and difficult for a simple writer like me to try to explain, Rome was sacked by the Vandals. They were, as we know, an indefatigable and burly race, a frightening Germanic tribe by whom, for many centuries, the Romans were ruthlessly harried (and, likely to their undying regret, from whom they unwisely recruited much of their mercenary force).
Cole paints a scene by which even the most stoic and hard-hearted is--regardless of the unwavering control he purports to exercise over his emotions--deeply dismayed. The temples in which, but only yesterday, the gods were supplicated and the assemblies gathered, are today set ablaze. The masses of people by whom they were filled are now amassed outside and dying. Confronted by a faceless enemy—perhaps domestic, though more likely foreign—they engage one another with sanguinary intent. Mutilated and lifeless bodies pile on the bridge across which, only recently, their scepter-wielding king was so enthusiastically conveyed. Thick miasmas of smoke interrupt the sweet inhalations of that same Arcadian air by which, so long ago, their innocent lungs were filled.
A desperate woman, perhaps a maiden, not yet acquainted with a young lover’s smile, chooses death as an end preferable to a hostile barbarian’s lust. Clad in white in contrast to the blue and smoky backdrop against which she’s set, as if to symbolize the purity and godliness of her uncorrupted state, she leaps from a precipice in an effort to escape. The horror on her face is unconcealed, while the prurience with which that of her attacker’s is painted speaks much louder than his inarticulate shouts. It expresses the unravelling of a civilized race, with the maiden's chastity being the first victim claimed.
I like to think of her as that most scrupulous and honorable of women, that greatest of females with whom history does its best to instruct us—the beautiful, faithful Lucretia. A Roman of incalculable virtue living during the last days of the old monarchy, a despotic regime over which, painfully, the dread Tarquin so cruelly presided, Lucretia emerges not only as that age’s grand heroine, but a timeless model of bravery to whom we might conform ourselves. She was a valiant daughter and a faithful wife to whom, having been treacherously defiled, suicide—as opposed to an unchaste life—was thought the better option. Cole’s woman, without saying a word, seems wholeheartedly to agree. She plunges to her death in the water, as Lucretia penetrated her breast with a knife.
This, Destruction, is the climactic moment of Cole’s vigorous work. It offers, however, as it yields to the panel by which it’s neighbored to the right, little opportunity for one to regain her wits. There’s no chance for the recovery of her breath. As she ventures to move her tear-soaked eyes and bounding heart to the fifth panel, Desolation, the last picture of which this tragic sequence is composed, she enjoys no decrescendo, no gradual reprieve from what’s been, until this moment, an exhausting and emotional trip. All of a sudden, she’s met with utter silence. It’s a harsh and halting dénouement to what’s been, heretofore, a loud, exciting, and devastating voyage.
The remnants of those same Corinthian columns, those smoothly tapered monuments atop which, in stances of pious repose and Olympian valor, so many confident gods once proudly stood, are now the uncelebrated hosts to grass. They may as well be the forgotten trellises around which so many eager vines tangle, or the trees about which every leaping herb hastens to grow. There is no species of moss, no variety of weed, by which they’re not encircled, and they all join in creeping in advance to the top. Rubble, doubtless not people, will be the sole inheritance of whatever state is to come. The structures have collapsed under the combined weight of time and humanity. The former is insuperable, the latter, incorrigible, and both exert a pressure in excess of their mass.
Thus, with Desolation, Cole’s sequence is complete. That which he doesn’t say, however, and that which he renders not, is the mystery and jewel of the piece. We confront, in his silence, a troubling ellipsis, an end to which, should we seek it, an epilogue might be appended. It’s for us to decide whether or not the Savage State will overcome the quietude of this desolate one and, like a second Adam adjoined by his beloved Eve, appear once again. And, if it should, and if they come to fill the role of naming the animals and cultivating the herbs as once God enjoined, do we think it desirable to restart the cycle yet again? Or would it be preferable for the desolation to persist and for nature, unencumbered by the unsolicited avarice of man, to sprout in the purity of her unblemished age?
To this, I haven’t an answer. I leave the imagined “sixth” panel to the fertility of your own mind and, more importantly, the optimism or pessimism of your spirit. The misanthrope might like to see the desolation of the land persist. Why on earth, he wonders, would we invite such savagery and bloodlust into so tranquil a world once again? Knowing what we do, with our fate preordained, how could we justify endorsing so ruinous a cycle to re-spin its wheels? Let us preserve Eden!--he says, as she might’ve been in an earlier life. Let us keep her happy and verdant, joyous and clean, neither imbrued with our blood nor hardened by our hatreds. Let us assure her, more than anything else, of no forthcoming violation by man.
The humanist, on the other hand, would reject so bleak and gloomy a thought. He’d favor the restoration of his misunderstood species, a race of imperfect, but fundamentally good beings of which he’s still proud to be a part. He sees the price of Consummation worthy of the toil by which it was obtained, and the risk of Desolation daunting, but needed if greatness is to be captured. The chance that we might end in so loathsome place, with all the conflagration, murder, pillage, iconoclasm, and rape, is one with which he resigns himself to live, to which, despite his acknowledgement of the possibility of its occurrence, he hopes never to bear witness.
I find myself, on most days, aligned with the humanist, a tenderer soul with whom I like to think I’ve much in common. I think Cole would delight in joining me in this gentle and amiable group, a fellowship of brothers and sisters from which few are ever excluded. But I also think about the placement of America, today as we know her, along the five options of this pentaptych. To ponder this question was Cole’s subtler design. Where, exactly, does America belong? This, surely, was a question by which Cole was consumed and, at his quiet insistence, posterity is still bothered.
Undoubtedly, we can exclude from our consideration the first two primitive states, those in which fire was a novelty, and the ox-driven plow an inexplicable advance. What about that of Consummation—is that, in all its regal splendor and glory, where we currently exist? None but the Pollyanna would say so, in whose roseate optimism we mustn't indulge. That leaves us with but two options from which to choose: Destruction and Desolation.
As for the latter, we’ve not yet returned our land to the sweet embrace of the goddess Gaia, to that ancient mother from whose fecund bosom, all vegetation once sprang, and to whom all dust will ultimately return.
That, through the unfailing process of elimination, leaves us with but one state: Destruction. I think, unfortunately, this is squarely the place that America inhabits today, a place beyond which, even if guided by a less divisive administration and a sturdier captain, she sees no future of moving.
In America, 2020 was a destructive year (worse, 2021 feels as though it’ll be much the same). Our faith in the institutions by which we ought to have been served crumbled, and, at this time, seem unlikely to be rebuilt. The legacy media outlets, in whose commitment to candor we sincerely used to believe, have abandoned every vestige of their borrowed and hoary legitimacy. They did so in the crazed pursuit of partisan gains, an effort by which their own activist viewers were clearly delighted, but the rest of us, simply wanting for news, annoyed.
For an entire summer, our cities burned—an urban blaze of which Cole’s Destruction is eerily reminiscent. With but a single inhalation, by which, with forgotten air, the tired memory is once again filled, the fetid stench of those nights in Kenosha, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Seattle, Portland, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis returns. We blink and see, as if before us right now, the statues being desecrated, the police officers being bludgeoned, the citizens being intimidated, and the pusillanimous mayors accepting every affront. At a time when small businesses were forced to close, and remuneration for their pain was both inadequate and unforthcoming, looters stole from showrooms what vendors couldn’t sell. The damage to property was incalculable, but that mattered to the riotous thieves not. After all, they reasoned, what good is insurance, if not for so unexpected a situation as this?
We were told, repeatedly, that the constant protests by which those flames were preceded and, in many cases, directly kindled, were “mostly peaceful”—a phrase that must now be retired. It no longer holds any currency in speech. Those who continue to use it do so only facetiously, or, heaven forbid, with a willful desire to misrepresent the truth. Either way, those who still make a habit of employing it in political talk must be rejected or ignored. One is either peaceful, or one is not. It is quite that binary, and quite that clear. Mostly not only implies, but tacitly acknowledges the latter, and it’s as simple as that. Such verbal legerdemain by which a pundit hopes to convince his gullible listener will be tolerated no more. We recognize the motivations and the trickery of those by whom such euphemisms are used.
And now, perhaps the most disheartening scene by which our crumbling fortitude has been shaken, we’ve borne witness to the Capitol Building besieged. A crowd of hooligans and malcontents, inflamed by the rhetoric of a president soon to be replaced, infiltrated the “People’s House”, that glorious edifice of column and dome in which the Electoral College votes were being counted. Confronted by a police force inadequate to repulse their mass, the insurrectionists—like the barbarian’s in Cole’s work—stormed that very building in which our congressmen were gathered. With surprisingly little effort, over a duration of time that was disquietingly brief, they gained access to the interior, and bedlam ensued.
Once there, in as uncivil a manner as any I’ve seen, they began pilfering congressional stationary, gallivanting like fools around the atria, placing their dirty feet on office desks, and occupying the chair in which, as a distinguished honor, the Speaker alone has the privilege to sit. Now reinforced, they again fought with those same officers over whom, just an hour earlier, they held the numerical advantage, but by whom, with the passage of time, they were quelled and finally ejected. Before that could happen, though, a woman was shot through the neck and killed, an outcome about which, given the nature of her unlawful actions, we might feel a moment of sadness, while not being really surprised. More tragic was the loss of a police officer’s life, upon whom the rioters unleashed their misguided fury. Three others died of undisclosed medical emergencies, by which the total of fatalities was elevated to five.
As I reflect on these events through which, in this annus horribilis, we’ve all had the misfortune to live, these days by which our nation’s been so utterly battered and bruised, I think of no image other than of Cole’s penultimate piece: Destruction. In the Course of Empire as it truly exists, an actual, as opposed to an artistic path of imperium along which America treads, I fear we’re at the height of a destructive state and, unmercifully, not yet at its end. I fix my gaze on Cole’s work as it rests on my wall and, turning toward my window, see no discernible difference.
Consummation, I realize, is but a memory—a hard truth to which I’m having difficulty adjusting myself. Harder still is the recognition that Destruction rules the day. And this, lamentably, is a day like no other; it’s unaccompanied by the sun’s hopeful rise the cloudless heaven in which it’s usually so buoyantly suspended. In the course of the months to come, it’ll be in darkness and enmity that we endure this life, until, finally, Desolation puts us to rest. This is the universal fate of empires, a reality from which, despite its uniqueness, America won’t be exempt. The pentaptych, after all, is read left to right, and we can’t deviate from the line that’s been drawn.