This is the second of 3 Quarks Daily’s Monday columns. Abbas started us off in fine form last week with a wholly fabricated yarn about his meeting with the president of Sri Lanka and talking to her about cake. He even presented some doctored photos.
I will change gears a bit with some real information about places that actually exist. In this case, Paterson, New Jersey. Now you may ask, with some puzzlement and bemusement, why Paterson. Especially if you’ve been there. Granted, history has not been so kind to Paterson. A once booming industrial town known as Silk City, it was recently described to me by a resident as ‘a complete shit hole’.
But it isn’t a complete shit hole. It is a special place. I’m not sure exactly what it is about Paterson that makes it special but I’ll try and jot down a few notes in that direction.
First of all, Paterson is wonderful because it is a ruin and ruins are beautiful. But that is too aesthetic and trite. The shallow romantic love of ruins is wistful and nostalgic, full of longing. I am talking about a love of ruins that is more like the attitude that Walter Benjamin took toward the Parisian arcades of the mid-19th century.
Ruins are interesting because when a world falls apart you have that much more of an opportunity to understand it. It lays itself bare. And Paterson isn’t just any kind of ruin, it is an American ruin. This is the city that William Carlos Williams wrote a five volume poem about. He picked Paterson as the place where he could write according to his precept “no ideas but in things.” He was trying to find an American idiom, like Whitman. He was trying to deal with America.
Paterson became Paterson because of its beautiful falls. But it wasn’t their beauty that mattered, it was the power to turn the mills. The weird American dynamic between nature and the city is right there in about two hundred yards of Paterson real estate, from the Great Falls down the street to the forgotten and decaying mills. A few blocks away can be found the truly sad and melancholic park in honor of Lou Costello (of Abbott and Costello fame). There, the drunks flout the posted suggestion that alcoholic beverages be consumed elsewhere.
In all that has fallen apart about Paterson, New Jersey, there is much that comes together. Paterson is about the meanness, and stupidness, and brutality that is America. The very failure that is Paterson is kind of perfect. But there is something tantalizing about it too. There is that infinite potentiality of Americanness lurking just beneath the surface of Paterson. It seems like that was what intrigued Williams too. Why can’t Paterson be more like what it gives you in glimpses and glimmers? Of course, that is a question that goes beyond Paterson to human civilization in general. But who wants to talk about human civilization in general. Right now, we have Paterson.
Have a lovely week.