Westminster Abbey is a stunningly beautiful place. I don’t know how to put this without sounding stupid and quasi-mystical, but I’m always struck by the “aura” surrounding really old places and things: the sense that, Wow, this is where Edward the Confessor/Mary, Queen of Scots/Geoffrey Chaucer/etc. are buried. It’s a facile and simplistic reaction, maybe, but a place like Westminster Abbey is genuinely awe-inspiring. People designed and built the earliest version of this church nearly a thousand years ago, and it’s still here. If there’s a clearer example of the aura Walter Benjamin discussed in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” I can’t think of what it might be. You can’t mechanically reproduce the experience of walking around Westminster Abbey. You can’t build a sufficiently convincing replica of a place like this (though, given Las Vegas casinos’ proclivities toward hollow simulacra of international landmarks, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that some mobbed-up billionaires had thought about it at some point). You can’t…well, I guess you can sell phony relics, as people evidently did all the time in Medieval and Renaissance Europe. But it’s not the same thing. Maybe that feeling isn’t intrinsic to the place itself; maybe it’s something I’m projecting onto it. But it’s still there.
I will admit to feeling a certain sense of schadenfreude upon hearing about Oliver Cromwell’s disinterment. Cromwell is…well, obviously he’s a vitally important figure in English history—and in global history, really, as an early instance of a successful anti-monarchist revolutionary. But most of my ancestry is Irish and Scottish Catholic, and—ah, he wasn’t very fond of Catholics, to put it mildly. I’m not a royalist at all. I have a typically American sense of bemusement at the idea of monarchy. But to my knowledge, none of the British monarchs engaged in brutal and intentional ethnic cleansing campaigns in Ireland (though some were…indifferent in ways that still caused ample death and destruction, regardless of intent). So yeah, this is a pointlessly cruel way of thinking, but I guess it’s hard not to see a certain poetic irony in hearing a brutal theocratic dictator posthumously taken down a couple of pegs, especially in that particular way.
During the afternoon off, I spent a couple of hours at the British Museum. I should have given myself more time, frankly, and I’m already considering going back this afternoon or tomorrow to cover some of the areas I missed. A few broad highlights so far have included the huge series of ancient Assyrian palace reliefs, remnants from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus—I mean, talk about historical aura—the Egyptian exhibit, and the artifacts from ancient and medieval Britain. The Sutton Hoo exhibit was fascinating. I always worry about my interest in ancient and medieval Europe: it’s a little D&D/Conan, maybe. But come on. Look at this stuff. It’s just so cool.
One more totally inconsequential thing: I got a couple of odd pictures of Pikachu dancing in the shadow of David Plinth’s Really Good thumbs’ up sculpture in Trafalgar Square. It struck me as sort of an unnerving tableau, like something out of The Wicker Man, or an urbanized version of Leatherface’s famous chainsaw dance from the end of the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre. You can’t convince me there’s a person inside that Pikachu costume. You can’t.