On a glorious summer day, I recently had the opportunity to visit a sculpture park. On my meander I came upon a contemporary bronze piece entitled "Column of the Free Spirit," by sculptor Richard Hunt. While the setting was lovely, I was struck by a particular view of the piece, set almost parallel with a receiving tower some distance away.
While I doubt that the receiving tower registered with many visitors, the space between the two figures spoke volumes to me. I suppose that is the way it is with art, and with sunny days, there it was. But then again, perhaps it wasn't.
The use of columns is as old as mankind itself. Phallic in nature, columns represent ascendancy, of vaulting spirit and divine logos. In the Neolithic era, vast primeval forests clothed the land. Thrusting upward to touch the heavens, these living columns offered shelter, food and inspiration to early humans. The post-holes of ceremonial sites from thousands of years ago offer up evidence of the ritual use of wooden columns before the use of hewn stone.
The Maypole tradition and its Solstice counterpart, the candy cane, are both rooted in the phallic column. Beyond the implications as a bringer-of-fertility, the column of the maypole is also the Tree of Life, whose broad branches spread as high and wide in our world as its roots spread below it. As the branches ever reach above, so they collect and synthesize light to feed the tree. As the roots ever spread in the darkness below, so also they provide stability to keep the tree balanced. Our world requires both.
Some early European monuments consisted simply of a column surmounted with a phallus. Called "hermai," they were named for Hermes, the Greek messenger of the gods. Hermes, though forever depicted as a young, able man, was much older than the Greek pantheon of gods. Originally a god of the land, he (like the archaic Irish deity Crom Drubh) traveled both above and below ground, ensuring richness, not of pocket, but of herds and fertility.
The Roman counterpart to the Greek Hermes is the god Mercury. The Gaulish Mercury was virtually identical to the hero of the Tuatha De Danann, Lugh. Celebrated "inventor of all arts," patron of travelers and guardian of the roads, it is no wonder that early columns to Lugh/Mercury were found at crossroads and intersections, places - like the world tree - where upper, lower and middle worlds meet. Even today, Lugh, the bright god, is honored at the great harvest festival of Lughnasadh on August 1.
The cell tower, a paean to Mercury, speeds messages like winged Hermes through the air. Higher and higher reach the towers. Vast, lofty testaments to the human need to connect, to be free of space where one is solitary. Freedom to talk to anyone almost anytime. More words, higher ambitions, external grasping -- can you hear me? Is anyone there??
Columns once rose to celebrate, to venerate those gods who would guide our steps and thoughts, carry us through life richly. Those monuments once expressed the ascendancy of spirit, spirit that was well grounded in soul. Soul that is the Matter of life. Truly then, art did mimic nature.
Is the cell tower art? Does art, and thus now life, mimic technology? With little grounding, the sky-scraping tower requires guy wires to enable it to withstand the buffeting of life. It has the potential to carry more words, ever more meaningless, through the atmosphere. But who are we really trying to connect with, that is, before the battery goes dead?
Out, out and beyond, disconnected, spinning further from an ensouled life. The way out is in, of course, but that is the harder, less traveled road. Easier to blame someone else, go to sleep or make just one more phone call...
And the "Column of the Free Spirit?" It felt weighty to me, grounded in enormity but without lift. The "free spirit" atop the column seemed ragged, unable to take flight or whatever freedom it was actually being offered. But that might have just been me, on a sunny, eternal summer day.