Archive for June 9th, 2021

Do we “live by bridges”? UCLA’s Thomas Harrison builds a persuasive case.

Wednesday, June 9th, 2021
He grew up next to the oldest bridge in the world, Kervan Kprüsü.

Bridges connect us – and they have since the beginning of time, all the way back to the very first bridge, the rainbow. They connect us geographically, strategically, metaphorically, lyrically (if that last seems a stretch, think of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”). Now we have a book to explain all sorts of bridges to us, thanks to UCLA author Thomas Harrison, whose book Of Bridges: A Poetic and Philosophical Account, is just out with the University of Chicago Press.

Harrison gave a May 28 Zoom presentation to launch On Bridges, with discussants Christy Wampole of Princeton and Stanford’s Marjorie Perloff. The Stanford literary critic had already weighed in on the book: “Of Bridges is a dazzling investigation into the profound semantic and historical resonance of the seemingly simple word bridge, that passage between two points that is unique in its material, metaphoric, and philosophical properties. Harrison has chapters on every possible aspect of bridging, for example, the musical bridge, the poetic bridge as in Hart Crane’s famous poem by that title, the actual historic bridges of Greece and Rome, and the ‘thought’ bridges of Nietzsche and Heidegger. Throughout, Harrison’s book is astonishingly learned, well written, and imaginative. Bridges will never be the same after this brilliant study.”

Harrison didn’t hesitate to name his own favorite bridge: “I grew up next to the oldest bridge in the world,” he said, recalling his childhood on the Aegean in İzmir, Turkey – a city known as Smyrna in the ancient world. The bridge marked the western endpoint of the “Assyrian Route,” the 2500-kilometer stretch that was the most important trade route in the ancient world. In an émigré enclave within the metropolis, Harrison grew up with an Italian mother and an American father, “a nominal Christian in a Muslim City.” The Pont des Caravans (Kervan Kprüsü), constructed around 850 BCE, is a slab-stone single-arch bridge over the river Meles, which has seen a constant procession of camels, horses, mules, and donkeys, going back to about 850 B.C. Legend has it that Homer crossed it as a boy.

But the book also reminds us of metaphysical bridges: As-Sirāt (Arabic: الصراط‎ aṣ-ṣirāṭ) is, according to Islam, the bridge all must cross on Judgment to enter Paradise. It is said that it is “thinner than a strand of hair and as sharp as the sharper than a sword.”

The wide-ranging zoom conversation considered drawbridges as “fake bridges,” bridges as familiar figures of speech, and the role of bridges in suicide, including the Golden Gate Bridge. Otherworldly bridges were discussed – Milton‘s bridge from hell over chaos in Paradise Lost, for example. Nietzsche‘s “Over the Footbridge was mentioned – and his rope over the abyss is a kind of bridge:

“Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman—a rope over an abyss. A dangerous across, a dangerous on-the-way, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous shuddering and stopping.

“What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end: what can be loved in man is that he is an overture and a going under.

“I love those who do not know how to live, except by going under, for they are those who cross over.

“Always,” wrote Philip Larkin, “it is by bridges that we live.” In this lyrical, vertiginous book of bridges visible and imagined, Harrison builds a persuasive case that it is so.