“In a very few hours I arrived in a city that always makes me think of a whited sepulchre. Prejudice no doubt. I had no difficulty in finding the Company’s offices. It was the biggest thing in the town, and everybody I met was full of it. They were going to run an over-sea empire, and make no end of coin by trade.” – Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Standing outside the White House, one feels a strange energy, a sense of outward composure over ruthless analysis and scheming. It’s not the dead weight on the air when you enter an old cathedral in Prague or the sinking medieval depth of a back street in Oxford. Neither does the White House radiate the architectural pretensions of our older universities trying to be more significant and stately than they actually are. Instead, it gives the impression of a violent river that, through some trick of light and gravity, has acquired a façade of perfect serenity. The White House is more of a movement than a structure; it’s dynamic; it’s a verb. It’s the soul of the United States evolving in some obscure, perhaps fated, direction. There is a powerful mystery here.
Simply walking around downtown D.C. is a history lesson—but maybe not the sort of history we’d like to believe, rather an emotional experience, a certain dissonance, a national identity crisis in full bloom. It’s easy to feel a brutal undercurrent to the capitol, echoes of neoclassical idealism tempered by an absolute faith in institutional power. In every edifice, one feels the constant tension between accepted history and the hard reality of a 300-year-old political experiment still trying not to fail. 300 years seems like a long time to an American, but it’s nothing to Europe. Yet Washington D. C. seems to have distilled the same civic narcissism of any European capitol city.
The irony of standing in front of the Department of the Treasury with a Swiss tour group was not lost on me. “Look, Albert Gallatin.” the 12-year-old boy in electric blue Nike sweats tugged on his father’s camera bag, but dad was frowning, texting with both thumbs. It was indeed Albert Gallatin, fourth Secretary of the Treasury, US financial bodhisattva immured forever in bronze by the north entrance, a detached expression on his face. A few minutes later, the worn-out mother took a picture of the boy holding up a $10 bill with Albert in the background.
Walking from the Executive Office Building to the Washington Monument, the message is clear: people built all this—but such people no longer exist and possibly never will again. Still, you are very small and they, even dead, are enormous. One thinks of the Valley of the Kings when standing at the foot of the Capitol Building. One thinks of the Tower of Babel and the Twin Towers and how the same gravity that rules the field mouse in a farm outside Hays, Kansas rules all this stone. And then one thinks of Ozymandias and goes home.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’