I had a professor in architecture school who said that you couldn’t draw up a building properly at 1:100 scale until you had worked out all the details at 1:20. Whether or not this is true for architecture, Robert Caro demonstrates how well such an approach works for writing history. Throughout The Years of Lyndon Johnson, and most particularly in his fourth and latest volume, The Passage of Power, Caro zooms in and out without ever losing the complex whole he has so carefully built up. Immense as Caro’s project is, The Passage of Power demonstrates the logic of his decision to extend the project to a fifth volume (he originally planned only three). The first 47 days of the Johnson administration, in which the best version of the man took charge, culminate this volume and are well worth the several hundred pages Caro devotes to them. There will be plenty of space for “ruthlessness, secretiveness, deceit,” the worst aspects of Johnson’s character, in the Years to come.
One arrives in a city and what to make of it all? Everything is either small or larger or noisier or quieter than you expected. In reaction, one seeks out the history of a place. In Paris, one of the best places to start to understand the city’s architectural history is the Pavilion de l’Arsenal, which has recently redone its permanent exhibition, Paris, la métropole et ses projets. One of the unique aspects of Paris is the way the many museums, at least the national ones, are meant to fit neatly together like Métro carriages. The Musée d’Orsay (freshly renovated) takes over from the Louvre in the revolutionary year of 1848, followed in turn by the Centre Pompidou and so on. But there are always pieces left over, with enough overlap to resist any amount of fist pounding. For Paris enthusiasts there is the Musée Carnavalet on the history of the city and for architecture and urbanism there is the Arsenal and the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine at the Trocadero. In comparison, the Arsenal is more contemporary, more open-ended, more Paris-focused and perhaps less concerned with monumentality.
On arrive dans une ville, et comment la comprendre? C’est toujours plus petite ou plus grande, plus bruyante ou plus calme qu’on l’avait entendu. On recherche, instinctivement, l’histoire des lieux. À Paris, la Pavillon de l’Arsenal vient de refaire leur exposition permanente, Paris, la métropole et ses projets. À Paris les plusieurs musées, au moins les musées nationaux, s’emboîtent comme les rames du Métro. Le Musée d’Orsay (aussi renouvelé) commence où finit le Louvre dans l’année révolutionnaire de 1848, et puis le Centre Pompidou continue des 1914 à nos jours. Mais avec tant des musées il y a toujours les rames qui restent, libres peut-être. qui restent, libres peut-être. Pour les amateurs de Paris il y a le Musée Carnavalet de l’histoire de la ville et sur le plan architectural et urbaniste nous avons l’Arsenal et la Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine au Trocadero. Par rapport au Trocadero, l’Arsenal s’agit plus de Paris et en particulière sa architecture moderne et contemporaine.
Today science fiction seems to have replaced history as the field in which the great truths of our inner and social lives are reflected, and historicism, as it evolved in the nineteenth century, is no longer a tangible part of our world. This is not to say that the discipline has died out or even declined, but the historical perspective which for a century or so stood as the foundation of people’s perception of their world, became a branch of philosophy, and permeated fiction, poetry, and theatre is no longer so essential to us. And this, in turn, is not to say that great history is no longer being written, or that people don’t reach for historical books with some urgency, or that historical fiction is no longer popular. Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov is a powerful case in point. It even stands apart from the rest of nineteenth century historical opera in the seriousness of the composer-librettist’s faith in history as a potent subject in itself.