Meet the New Colossus—Same as the Old Colossus
I have to confess, I love the Parthenon. Not the original (though I might indeed love it, if I ever get a chance to see it) but the reproduction.
Sitting on the 132-acre Centennial Park in the heart of Nashville, the Tennessee version of the Parthenon is an attempt to faithfully re-create the building that sits atop the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. Working from plaster castings of the marble fragments that are now housed in the British Museum, sculptors fashioned pediments that reflect—fairly accurately—what those carvings would have looked like in 400 B.C. On one pediment, Athena and Poseidon stand at the center, permanently locked in their feud over which of the gods would preside over the city-state (Athena’s gift of the olive branch won the citizens’ hearts). On the opposite end of the building from the two quarreling gods are the rest of the pantheon: Helios, Hermes, Hestia, Hebe, etc. Zeus presides, while Athena is crowned with a wreath.
Inside the Parthenon stands a polychrome statue of Athena, 42-feet high. Though the statue seems gaudy to some contemporary eyes, she is said to resemble the Athena sculpted by Phidias, holding Nike, goddess of Victory, in her right hand.
I know it’s considered tacky to prefer a copy over an original. The fake Venetian canals of Las Vegas, the Swiss chalets and Tudor houses of the suburbs, the manufactured environments of shopping malls, the Gus van Sant version of Psycho. But sometimes, there is simply no substitute for the things of antiquity except to remake them as they might have been. It’s not just that some of us can never know the legendary head of Apollo, we cannot even fathom what that head might have looked like. It’s not that we’re incapable of imagining something—but imagination alone is not expert enough to reinvent history, supply missing pieces, restore the broken statuary of a time far beyond our own memory.
Of course the remake is not the original. But even the original is not the original. We can always have innovation: new styles, new periods, new ways of making. But we should also applaud the monks who spent their lives copying out manuscripts that might not otherwise have survived, and the artists who labor at making nothing new except the past.
Born in Albany, Georgia, D. A. Powell earned an MA at Sonoma State University and an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first three collections of poetry, Tea, (1998), Lunch (2000), and Cocktails (2004), are considered by some to be a trilogy on the AIDS epidemic. Lunch was a...