"All I know is what I read in the newspapers," Will Rogers used to say. Remembering his adage, and not given to plagiarism yet, I freely acknowledge the newspapers as the inspiration for this sermon. For a particular account in the papers, that is.
You may have read that they've just found the tomb of King Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, in northern Greece. It had been lying under mounds of earth for tens of centuries - well, for some 2,300 years, to be more precise. When they stripped off 17 feet of surface soil in that farming village, there was the tomb, intact, exactly as it had been sealed off from human view all those ages past.
Inside, they found a store of riches: sculptured silver, bronze and gold vasas and goblets, body armor trimmed in gold-and-silver royal diadem, a white marble sarcophagus inside of which lay a solid gold casket weighing 24.4 pounds. The heads of five persons - Philip, his parents, his wife, andAlexander - had been carved in ivory. Above the entrance to the tomb lay perhaps the greatest artistic find of all - a painting, depicting a mounted royal hunt that extends the width of the structure. Those red, blue, white and black colors painted in antiquity remain bright. The New York Times reports that one of the archeologists working on the site says that painting and another found in a nearby tomb are the oldest to be discovered in Greece. They "bring us to the very roots of Hellenistic art." the archeologists is quoted as saying.
Philip's tomb isn't the only great discovery we've learned about in recent days. At the same time as the announcement in Greece, the Italians were reporting they, too, have made a dramatic find. The news agency, Reuter, tells us that Italian archeologits have unearthed a life-size-terracotts statute of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, from a cave 18 miles south of Rome. The statue was lyin, along with 50 broken others, a few hundred yards from the tomb of Aeneas, who fled from Troy to Carthage and then made his way into Italy. His descendants, legend has it, founded Rome.
"The statues are of an exceptional quality and are unusually refined in their artistic details." according to an announcement by archeologists of the Roman Institute of Ancient Topography. The find is regarded as one of the most important in years. One of the intiguing aspects of the discovery was the placement of the statues. They were all lying in an orderly position. The cave, it seems, was a depository, an ancient store-house. One explanationPoses the theory that the statues were carefully put there when the Latins ceased worshipping the Minerva cult a century before Christ. But, it would appear, they wished their art to survive as testaments to their faith and culture. And so finally, it has.
Now that brings me circuitously I confess, to today's point. I've just completed a day's exposure to the pleasures -perils? - of holiday shopping in Washington. I commend the experience to anthropologists, sociologists, and archeologists - archeologists. I mean, with the imagination to wonder what it wouldbe like to poke among the ruins of the most powerful capital in human history.
It isn't the power that's impressive. It is the riches. Not the richness of art, but the extraordinary range of richness so obviously available to so many. Never before have so many had so much to spend on - well, let's not say to spend on so little, just say to spend on things.
Within the last eight months two massive shopping centers have opened in the Washington area The most recent, Mazza Gallerie, located just inside the city line, houses Neiman - Marcus and, eventually, some50 other specialty stores. It cost in the neighborhood of $25 million to build and covers nearly 300,000 square feet.
The second, White Flint, in Rockville, cost $50 million and is even more gigantic. Its 800,000 square feet holds two full-size department stores (Bloomingdale's and Lord & Taylor, movie theaters, restaurants, fast food shops and a variety of other establishments that offer a host of gods - among them jewelry, furs, leathers, carpets - that have one common ingredient.
They are all expensive (I started to use an adjective such as "extremely" to indicate the price ranges, but clearly that the term is not applicable. Extremely expensive means, or should, available to only a relative few. But here, before your eyes, is evidence that it is the many, not the few, who are purchasing such highly priced items). Each shopping center requires masses of people to support it - and masses are what each is are getting.
On the day after Thanksgiving both centers were so crowded you hardly could maneuver among the lavish displays of merchandise. Of the two, my vicarious favorite is White Flint. At Neiman-Marcus there's a certain fascination in watching people price the $4,995 sable or milk coats and $300 blouses, but White Flint gives more of a sense of the richness of many.
And White Flint, with its chrome, glass, formica, tile and copper finishings and its acres of parking immediately offers the stronger impression of widespread affluence. From the moment you pull into the parking lot (my Honda slipped in between a Mercedes and a Cadillac, and all around were similar foreign and America models) you're struck by several things.
One involves sheer numbers: how many they are, and how far they obviously have traveled to get there. The second concerns the shoppers themselves. There's nothing, in dress, manner or demeanor, to mark them as a specially favored class. No trapping of nobility, no airs of the old carriage trade. Just a vast throng of people, and so many of them so young. They are not mere onlookers, either. They are buying, whether diamonds at Black, Starr & Frost or expresso machines at Bloomingdale's.
Something else: they are not unique to Washington. Washington may be - indeed, doubles is - more favored by affluence than other American metropolitan areas, but you can seee these same kinds of sights in similar shopping centre in virtually every major city. And they are all the same: places and people apart, removed from the reality of economic suffering and lives led of desperation. They are, I suppose, what passes for mainstream America today.
It was that story about Philip's tomb, or maybe the one about Minerva's statue, that got me musing. What if some catacylsmic eruption, as in antiquity, occurred at that moment, sweeping a flow of lava over us and fixing us and our culture forever in time, leaving us to be discovered and examined later in centuries to come? Out of all that expenditure of money and effort, all that collection of glittering goods, one aspect of White Flint would stand out as probably most American.
In the center of that multimillion-dollar plaza stands a collection of restaurants called The Eatery. Quite cosmopolitan it is, appealing to a variety of tastes. You can get barbecued chicken and kosher hotdogs, natural food combinations and yogurt desserts, Italian pizza and Chinese eggrolls, Greek salads and fried shrimp.It's all mass-produced fast service, plastic ware, eat-on-the run style. Many people stand to eat. Gobble and go, very American.
The trouble is, probably none of it would survive the fire. Built for obsolescene, you see. Function over form. But then, we can't have everthing, and who said we ever pretendwed to be Greeks or Romans? Theirs just lasted longer, that's all.