Tuesday, August 11, 2009

What Falls under the Rubric of 'Arcadian Studies' ?

What doesn't?

When we look at Utopian Studies today, they seem to include not just utopias, but ur-topias, dystopias, counter-utopias and anti-utopias.

Maybe more; maybe lots more.

Its awfully hard to keep up.

The original Greek 'Arcadia' was almost nothing like the Arcadia that the Roman poet (and pastoralist farmer) Virgil dreamed up.

But his was the far, far more popular arcadia - until the recent rise in environmental concern and the re-reading of ancient history through that lens.

Frankly, Virgil invented a wholly Synthetic Arcadia and he was hardly the last to do so.

(It is only proper to give the French chemist Marcelin Berthelot full credit for coming up with that specific term, but hardly with the concept - that belongs to Virgil and his literary followers centuries later.)

ARCADIA and the FANTASY genre

Many young people associate 'Arcadia' today with the Fantasy Genre set in a Golden Age past and maybe even think it is a recently invented variant on Arcade, as in 'arcade video games'.

Megalopolis, by contrast, they perhaps associate with the future - a dark and dirty future set in a huge sprawl of a city with more inhabitants than most of today's nations, perhaps fueled by references in various Batman films and all the Blade Runner film, TV, video game and graphic novel knock-offs.

But Arcadia and Megalopolis are, in fact, real places, they had existed for thousands of years and still continue to exist.

In fact, and here is where the whole idea of 'Arcadian Studies' gets really interesting, Arcadia and Megalopolis existed in the one and same time and space !

They contested that space and its inhabitants by offering up alternative arcadias - one existing within the limits set by Nature and the other ---synthetic --- arcadia as an human attempt, without limits, to constantly 'improve' nature.

Let us explain.

To better contrast the modern (modern since Virgil in the time of Christ, that is) mythical sense of Arcadia with the ancient Greeks' more accurate sense, we need only remember that while our Arcadia is famous as the Peaceable Kingdom, their Arcadia was the one Greek province famous for not exporting anything edible but rather for exporting its population as mercenaries to fight others' wars - so tough was the climate and livestyle in their harsh and isolated Interior Mountain lair !

And the Greek Megalopolis was designed to be a very large city even by modern standards - but to be built 2500 years ago - yet quickly ended up being abandoned and deserted as its residents preferred to move back to tiny rustic villages.

This Old World, pre-Christ era contest ( round one to the rustics over the urbanites) got a second go-around in the New World.

In 1957, the Swiss geographer, Jean Gottmann, described the conurbation from Washington, DC to Boston (with New York City very much its heart) as Megalopolis, in his book of the same name.

The concept took off in both geographers' circles and in the media worldwide and many more similar conurbations were found in various leading nations.

But , again, Gottmann wasn't the first to use this term to describe Greater New York and, like Virgil, he altered the term's contemporary meaning to something much more positive.

Lewis Mumford, the radical urban planning advocate, in his 1938 book, The Culture of Cities, used the term Megalopolis in its more accurate historical sense - as a planned mega-city that failed to live up to its billing - as had the original Greek Megalopolis.

Gottmann's Megalopolis, instead, was seen as an artful mix of high intensity supercity centres, surburban areas and regions of naturally re-forested woodlands and functioning farms - all within easy automobile driving distances from each other.

All needed each other - Man and Nature in harmony - a synthetic arcadia - Virgil fullfilled.

Today, this conurbation is seen as extending from Richmond Virginia to Portland Maine.

Familiar territory to another Italian in love with what he supposed was the essence of the Greek Arcadia - one Giovanni de Verrazzano ( 1485-1528) from Florence.

Kitty Hawk - home to the fighter-bomber (and Arcadia)

In 1524, he landed at Kitty Hawk - yes that Kitty Hawk - and called it Arcadia.

He then travelled up the coast, marvelling at all the arcadian beauty, was the first European to go into New York Harbour and went all the way up into Nova Scotia, before returning home to his paymaster - the French king !

Since Virgil and Verrazzano and the rest of educated Europe's Arcadia was wherever urban existence was not, over time the New World Arcadia migrated steadily northward, as the more temperate southern places tended to be settled first.

Maps soon had it in New Jersey and Pennsylvania (!)

Later on it moved upward towards what became Nova Scotia,where it fruitfully mingled with the common local aboriginal place name ending of -acadie to produce Acadia.

Evangeline, the poem and the woman, she of the 'forest primeval', soon cemented the emotional connection of Nova Scotia as Virgil's Arcadia, when for centuries, it was more seen in terms that better fitted the harsher Greek sense of the word Arcadia.

Nova Scotia (Nova Scarcity) becomes Arcadia :History repeats itself.

Today, Gottmann's 1957 Megalopolis and Verrazzano's 1524 Arcadia occupy the same long, narrow, coastal strip of eastern America - and verdure and mortar still fight it out, as in old.

Currently, it is said that mortar is winning, but Peak Oil might ultimately decide otherwise....

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