Wednesday, January 4, 2012

On Visiting the Lincoln Memorial

For me, the Lincoln Memorial is the most moving place among all the monuments and museums on the National Mall, even though the competition is stiff.  One might stand on the Capital steps to feel the Piedmont lift out of the Potomac flood plane and from there see the nation's lawn roll out to pivot around the Washington monument, that oddly un-Egyptian obelisk.  Or walk the small plaza behind the capital, which offers a more urbane sense of government, flanked by the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress.  Or visit the Smithsonian museums, which categorize and summarize fields on fields of knowledge, marching down the mall like battalions of scholars dressed in architecture.  But the Lincoln Memorial fulfills the german word for monument - Denkmal - a time for thought.

The Lincoln Memorial stands in counterpoint to the capital, on the opposite side of the Washington Monument and equidistant from it, to mark a bend in the river rather than the rise of foothills.  In this position the figure of Lincoln looks east through a screen of columns, as if looking back toward the origins of the country, rather than west as the capital building does to the Great Plains and California.  Behind him across the river in Virginia the memory garden of Arlington cemetery lays out the dead of the Civil War around the mansion house of his rival General Robert E. Lee. 

On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial thousands of tourists have their picture taken, then turn to photograph the Washington Monument, doubled in the reflecting pool and reduced in perspectival distance, so it can appear to fit in the palm of the hand.  The statue of Lincoln however cannot be seen at a distance, because it is hidden by a double row of columns, so it never appears as a miniature even in the camera lens.  On the steps, one rises up at least three times higher than the heads of those on the lawn below, looking always up toward the building then out over the watery part of the mall.  One has to climb two flights to see Lincoln at all.   There within a public yet intimate room he sits almost like royalty on a sort of throne, yet his hands are tense in the foreground.   Like Rodin's Burgers of Calais, the figure of Lincoln expresses the anguish of choice in his fingers more than his face.  To see the figure of Lincoln then to read his words engraved on the walls one can feel his sadness and his resolve echoed through history lessons into national memory.  The stone room echoes slightly giving resonance to the voice, as many people read the Gettysburg Address out loud.   The message in Lincoln's words is not distant, musing poetry, but a direct challenge that reaches back to the ideals of the founders, through the bloody fulcrum of the Civil War that Lincoln chose to fight, and into the then future, to speak to each of us as individuals.  All this echoes in the cool stone room inside an American temple that graces a landscape garden at a bend in a swampy river, which once divided the nation, at the boundary of the capital city that still suffers from the divisions Lincoln sought to mend.

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