Beau­ti­ful truth re­vealed in a pile of stones

The Dominion Post - - Opinion - JOE BEN­NETT

Here is the history of Christchurch. Here's the fan­tasy that smug Vic­to­ri­ans sought to im­pose on this is­land in the South Pa­cific.

Poetry, said Au­den, makes noth­ing hap­pen. The same is true of news­pa­per col­umns. I know so. For I’ve writ­ten sev­eral thou­sand of them and they’ve had much the same in­flu­ence on the world as clear­ing my throat has – and the gen­tle­man at the back say­ing that’s how they read may sit down.

This week, how­ever, I hap­pened to go into town and saw a sight that made me won­der whether, per­haps, just for once ... but let me be­gin at that ever-pop­u­lar lo­ca­tion, the be­gin­ning.

After the earth­quakes of 2011, the cen­tre of Christchurch was cor­doned off. Be­cause I could no longer go there I lost in­ter­est in what hap­pened there and to the de­bate about how to re­build it I con­trib­uted noth­ing. When the au­thor­i­ties asked for sub­mis­sions and sug­ges­tions, I nei­ther sub­mit­ted nor sug­gested.

In my ap­a­thy I chose to take no part in the po­lit­i­cal life of the city, and thus be­came what the An­cient Greeks called an id­iot.

So, though it may seem to me, from my re­cent wan­der though the re­build, that the new city cen­tre will be sub­stan­tially uglier than the old one, I am in no po­si­tion to crit­i­cise. And though it may seem to me that every de­vel­oper has hired the same ar­chi­tec­tural firm, to wit Messrs Bland, Kor­prut, Krohm and Glasse, I am in no po­si­tion to crit­i­cise. And though it may seem to me that the re­build lacks a sin­gle bold idea for the peo­ple to grasp and cleave to, I am in no po­si­tion to crit­i­cise. And though it may fur­ther seem to me that hav­ing been given a chance to cre­ate some­thing star­tling, fresh and dis­tinc­tive, Christchurch is now in the process of fail­ing to take that chance, well, I am still in no po­si­tion to crit­i­cise.

But then I turned on to Worces­ter St, looked up and and saw a sight that made my heart sing like a lark. It was the cathe­dral.

Now, my record of be­ing rude about re­li­gious or­gan­i­sa­tions is, I be­lieve, un­blem­ished. Be they cults or es­tab­lished faiths (the dif­fer­ence be­tween the two be­ing merely size of in­come) I have crit­i­cised them ex­plic­itly and im­plic­itly for fail­ing to ac­knowl­edge the ob­vi­ous reality of things.

How any of them per­sist post-Dar­win I have no idea. And yet, that said, I am about to praise the au­thor­i­ties of the Angli­can Church to the non-ex­is­tent heav­ens.

Reg­u­lar read­ers may re­call that I wrote a col­umn in early 2012 suggest­ing that the ru­ined cathe­dral be left ex­actly as it was for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions to gawp at. There could be no bet­ter quake memo­rial, I said.

Now I have no way of telling whether the Angli­can big­wigs read my col­umn, but that is pre­cisely what they’ve done. They threw a fence around the ruin and let it be. The re­sult is al­ready spec­tac­u­lar. After only seven years the cathe­dral has be­come as evoca­tive as a Mayan ruin in the jun­gle. It is eerie. It is beau­ti­ful. It is touch­ing and it is telling.

One end of the build­ing is open to the world. Rub­ble is heaped in what was once the nave. Weeds have colonised the stonework. And amid the rafters pi­geons sit con­tent­edly and coo to each other in quiet pos­ses­sion of a space that once rang with hymns and prayers. You would have to be dead of heart and mind not to look at it and think.

Here is the history of Christchurch. Here’s the fan­tasy that smug Vic­to­ri­ans sought to im­pose on this is­land in the South Pa­cific. The fan­tasy was class­bound and church-cen­tred, and its nub was this cathe­dral, built in stone in im­i­ta­tion of else­where.

That stone was its un­do­ing. Had it been of na­tive tim­bers it would have swayed and stood, but it was as un­bend­ing as Vic­to­rian mo­ral­ity. It cracked and fell. And in fall­ing it be­came a metaphor for the faith that had erected it. To­day we are a sec­u­lar so­ci­ety.

And here too is the greater sci­en­tific truth ex­pressed. In place of god we have tec­tonic plates. Like god they can bring ruin. But un­like him they don’t play favourites.

We’re not the cho­sen species, the favoured mam­mal of him up­stairs. In the face of ge­o­log­i­cal forces we stand on the skin of the earth as vul­ner­a­ble and in­signif­i­cant as every other crea­ture.

So much truth in a heap of stone. All I can do is re­peat what I said in 2012. Let’s leave it as it is. (Oh and please, yes, of course I’m aware of the Angli­cans’ real rea­sons for do­ing noth­ing. But can a man not en­ter­tain a brief and harm­less fan­tasy that he made some­thing hap­pen?)

Rub­ble is heaped in what was once the in­te­rior of the cathe­dral. ‘‘It is eerie. It is beau­ti­ful. It is touch­ing and it is telling.’’

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